Every now and then, a short story appears that manages, through the author’s sheer craft, to compress all the emotional and narrative heft of a novel into 15 or 20 pages. Alice Munro has built a legacy on being able to pull this off, as did Anton Chekhov. In his new collection, Tread & Other Stories, Barry Dempster manages a similarly impressive feat.
The tale is called “Jeffers,” a story so good it makes a reader wonder why it isn’t the title piece in the collection, or its opening salvo. “Jeffers” tells the story of Luke, a man who, following the death of his sister in a car crash, takes on the guardianship of his 13-year-old nephew, Jeffrey (nicknamed “Jeffers”). Jeffers has only a few months to live thanks to a rare form of blood cancer. As if this weren’t fraught enough, Luke’s wife, Leah, is halfway through a very difficult pregnancy, and his elderly father, with whom Luke has had a strained relationship all his life, is in the late stages of dementia.
This situation could have led to some fairly grim reading, but Dempster infuses his tale with life and love and even some comedy. As Jeffers approaches his death, he develops a bucket list that includes visiting Niagara Falls, knowing what it feels like to be drunk, and losing his virginity. Luke can accommodate some, but not all, of these requests. The major dilemmas come to an inevitable head, and yet readers are left feeling buoyant rather than depressed by the story’s ending.
Many of the stories in Tread feature men trying to listen to their better angels as they deal with illnesses, aging or dying parents, or family dynamics that have gone sideways. Two pieces near the beginning of the book – “The World Cup” and “The Chihuahua War” – provide a window onto males who cannot turn away from the darkness that plagues their inner worlds. “Two-Man Tent,” meanwhile, focuses on the prismatic nature of male relationships. It’s a tense story narrated by a boy whose musician uncle, Jules, comes to stay with him and his family while gigging and enters into a sexual relationship with the boy’s older brother, Keir.
Not every story carries the same weight. The squibs “Untitled” and “Personal Values” feel like filler, and “Bad Boys,” about a female corrections officer trainee who longs for a sexual relationship with a prisoner, is an outlier in tone and subject matter. Yet, at their best, Dempster’s stories do what all good short fiction should: give us characters who live and breathe and themes that braid themselves effortlessly around a memorable premise.
The small city of Baracoa, in eastern Cuba, dominates Amanda Hale’s new story collection, Angela of the Stones. In fact, it’s fair to call Baracoa a character unto itself: Hale fictionalizes the lives and struggles of the city’s people while Cuba clings tenaciously to its communist political and economic system.
The best tale in this book is “Daniela’s Condition,” about a woman who decides to jump off the roof of her apartment building as a suicidal act of protest against her husband Armando’s philandering. Daniela doesn’t die from the fall – instead, she’s badly injured. Armando takes it upon himself to look after her, to minister to her copious needs and become an ideal spouse. “The truth of it was that Daniela had found in her condition that which she had lacked – the ability to draw the full attention and devotion of her husband.” It’s a surprisingly touching reversal that says much about the nature of love.
Unfortunately, most of the other stories in the collection lack a similarly interesting set-up. Angela of the Stones places too many of its eggs in the basket of place: the book hopes that merely situating these pieces in the “exotic” locale of Baracoa will entrance a Canadian audience. But this comes at the expense of other elements of good fiction – plot, characterization, writing style, and theme.
What’s missing from most of these stories is, well, a story. The opening tale, “La Huelga,” is about a church congregation upset by the departure of a popular padre named Luigi. “I, Gertrudis” is about a former nurse who shares her memories of the Revolution’s beginning with an unnamed stranger. In too many tales – including “Homecoming,” “The Piano-Tuner from Guantánamo,” and “The Unwelcome Guest” – the broader message can be summed up as “the Revolution hasn’t been all it’s cracked up to be.” It gets tedious, fast.
Hale works hard to ensure these pieces do not come off as merely touristic; her submersion in the culture of Baracoa is impressive. But with such a light dusting of characterization and a conspicuous lack of conflict in many of these pieces, it’s tough to get invested in them on a deeper level.