Someone always seems to be tossing out the idea that short-story collections are “having a moment” or “finally getting their due.” This kind of hyperbole is difficult to quell and doesn’t tell us much in any case. On a more substantive level, new collections by Adrian Michael Kelly and H.B. Hogan exemplify the strengths and weaknesses of the form.
The linked stories in Kelly’s The Ambassador of What take place in small-town Ontario and centre on an erudite son at odds with his working-class father. (Readers familiar with Kelly’s 2001 novel Down Sterling Road will recognize the themes the author is focusing on here.) There is a bitter separation between father and mother, the fall-out of divorce as experienced in family tensions around Christmas holidays, and the struggles of a son trying to run a marathon. Kelly is an adroit writer capable of rendering the trials of his brooding male protagonists fresh and meaningful.
The father is a particularly rich character: a Scottish immigrant both tender and tyrannical. Kelly uses Scottish dialect – harsh, clipped yet lyrical, folksy turns of phrase – to conjure a patriarch who is all the more complex when placed in contrast to his bookish and plain-talking son. Scottish roots, working-class life, poetic heartbreak, keen observation, rich dialogue, and a gentle, ribbing humour run through these stories and the father-son banter is one of the most rewarding aspects of the collection. Not surprisingly, there are echoes of Alistair MacLeod in Kelly’s stories, though Kelly lacks MacLeod’s mysticism and sentimentality.
The book’s major downfall is in its organization. Divided into two parts, the first section is considerably longer, stronger, and more cohesive. Each story is told in first person from the son’s point of view and builds incrementally onto the next. The much shorter second part reads like an addendum tacked on to what otherwise might have been a novella. The first two stories of the second section, “Lure” and “The Door Opener,” also feature father-son dynamics and so yearn to be read within the context of the previous section. However, this pair is written in third person; “I” becomes “the boy” and “my father” becomes “his father.” Though these two stories (along with the two that close the collection) are strong in themselves, the third-person POV creates a distance between reader and narrator that erodes the intimacy established in the previous stories. The reader is left to infer parallels between the two sections that are not made entirely clear, and there is a sense of loss at the disappearance of the specific father-son narrative that has been developed earlier.
H.B. Hogan’s This Keeps Happening shares a few similarities with Kelly’s collection. Both books contain stories in which a grown child watches their mother make do with a feeble husband and both have a minor Russian character used for comic effect.
Peppered with sad sacks and abusers, the stories focus on the sordid moments of characters lost in a system not of their making. Hogan’s characters include drunks, homeless teens, clueless husbands, meek women, sexually advanced teenagers, and overqualified immigrants expected to do menial labour. The entitled get their comeuppance; simple folk fail to see what’s in front of them; the small-town conservative is eager to take down the big-city liberal. The narratives sometimes resemble court cases, peopled with figures you’d find in circuit court or hanging around social security offices. (Hogan also works as a lawyer.)
Perhaps the world is as misanthropic as what Hogan presents, but instead of flashes of recognition, the stories often veer toward ridiculous outcomes and contain scenes that are corny and unbelievable. Some of this can be blamed on the use of clumsy dialogue. Yokels and teenagers drop prefixes or suffixes; an Indian man, Mr. Gupta, is demarcated by his clichéd use of proper and apologetic English; the bullish and mocking Russian Mr. Lebedev – as you’d expect – speaks in stilted, broken English (“Is good”). Everyone is shrill, insolent, incompetent, or goofy; instead of being affecting, these characterizations feel silly.
Poorly executed dialect is an easy rookie mistake to make; fortunately, there are other strong aspects to the collection. “Empties” is about Kerri, a 16-year-old runaway. Though Kerri seems hardened – skirting the advances of drunken men and suffering homelessness and poverty – she is, in many ways, still a child. Her damp hair is described as a “fringe of small wet tongues” – a small touch of innocence of the kind that appears scattered throughout the book. In moments such as this one, Hogan demonstrates how redemption may be tenuous, but hope is not completely lost.