Near the end of “Green Hell,” the second of 14 stories in Tom Wayman’s wonderful new collection (all set in the West Kootenay region of B.C.’s Slocan Valley), Billy, the lone occupant of a table in an otherwise packed restaurant, is speaking to a couple of tourists he has invited to join him: “Impressive, eh? But you can tell from what I’ve been blabbing that appearances around here can be deceiving. It may look like wonderland, but –” His side of the conversation is all the reader is privy to; the questions, comments and reactions of the others are implied by his responses, heightening the tension and instability as his character is further revealed.
Fiction writer, poet, and essayist Wayman engages with various stances, slopes, and uneven terrain in these stories: his characters are constantly at risk of falling off roofs, into graves – or falling over dead. Rife with conflict, the superbly paced stories are peopled with outliers, eccentrics, hippies, loggers, miners, environmentalists, teachers, landlords, lawyers, and no end of marijuana growers. The latter group comprise “an industry that, according to many impartial sources, is the main economic generator for the region, surpassing in revenue lumber, mining, and smelting combined, and bigger than health care and all other government employment.” So says a supplier of grow-op equipment to a roomful of growers, before trying to persuade them to branch out into coffee.
Wayman’s richly textured and tightly structured stories are steeped in history. Take the first part of “The Three Jimmys,” a three-part story that traces the rise and fall of a motel built, owned, and operated by the eponymous trio. The first Jimmy, talking about the Japanese-Canadian internment camps, says, “Stories started to circulate about the government having failed to plan ahead, so whole families were shivering out the winter in tents.” The Doukhobors, he states, were the first to offer help: “Being shipped over here from Russia, the Douks knew what it was like to lose everything and be forced to leave home by a government.”
Elaine, a Vietnam War resister from Santa Cruz who narrates the story’s second part, came to Canada by choice, hoping for a safer and more stable life for her children. Once settled in the valley, her husband, indulging in drugs and “free love,” heads off to live in a commune, leaving her to provide for the children in the valley, where jobs are scarce. She eventually moves in with one of the Jimmys, a veteran of the Korean War. Elaine ultimately comes between the Jimmys, on the level of both content and form.
There is nothing safe about these stories. Linked by the ever-present waft of pot, recurring shady characters, and the setting itself, these stories resemble a close-knit community. Shifting in response to internal and external forces, the Slocan Valley and its inhabitants – wholly realized under Wayman’s deft touch – feel simultaneously alive and vulnerable.