Of the 12 stories that comprise Russell Wangersky’s new collection, only the last possesses an ending that could be called happy. In fact, the ending in question has more cautious optimism than unabashed joy, but considering what the reader must go through to get there, it feels like the clouds parting after a season of constant rain.
Wangersky, whose day job is editor and columnist with St. John’s The Telegram, is not a writer prone to looking on the bright side. The title of his previous collection, The Hour of Bad Decisions, summed up its literary territory nicely. (That book was longlisted for the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.) Wangersky’s first novel, The Glass Harmonica, which won the 2011 BMO Winterset Award, examined, in close narrative detail, the impact of a violent and senseless murder upon the people on a single street in St. John’s.
Death and bad decisions are everywhere in Whirl Away, and things are almost always going from bad to worse. Wangersky likes to focus on a single moment of crisis, moving outward to reveal the years and decades of underlying damage that contributed to it.
Sometimes the crisis is presented obliquely, as in “Echo,” in which a five-year-old amuses himself on the porch while his parents bicker inside. The boy speaks in the language of adult arguments he has learned from eavesdropping on his mother and father: “There you go again. How many times do I have to listen to this stuff?” he says to the water in his inflatable swimming pool.
Death is nearly always presented as a senseless, almost random event. In the opening story, “Bolt,” a man named John is killed by a rusty bolt that comes flying through the back window of his truck when he goes off the road. “John had a brief moment to think about what-if – what if he hadn’t reached across the seat towards the glove compartment, what if he hadn’t over-corrected when the wheels touched the shoulder.” In “911,” a paramedic heads out on an unauthorized call to retrieve a man who has collapsed from a heart attack and ends up flipping the ambulance. In “Sharp Corner,” a man (also named John) becomes obsessed with the cars that keep crashing just beyond his driveway, where the road takes a dangerous turn. The accidents are horrific, but for John, they become dinner-party conversation fodder: he begins to practise relating how he found the victims, working on his timing for maximum effect.
Even in stories that don’t happen to feature a car crash, there is always the sense that characters have lost control and are about to find themselves in the ditch. The narrator of “Family Law” is a lawyer who has stayed late at the office to research divorce settlements. By the time he reveals the reason for his diligence, the reader has already guessed it: he is fooling around on his wife with the secretary. (We get her perspective on the affair in “Open Arms,” a later story in the collection.)
Whirl Away sometimes feels more like a series of character sketches than a collection of stories that have been fully fleshed out – most of the pieces focus on a single individual, and we almost never see more than two characters interacting at a time. The stories in Whirl Away provide ample evidence for anyone wanting to argue that literary short fiction remains stuck in a Chekhovian rut.
Wangersky’s writing possesses two qualities that help counter those criticisms. For all the brooding and misery and regret that his characters fall victim to, the stories are shot through with a wicked sense of humour. The ambulance driver in “911” notes that when his wrecked rig was found upside down in the ditch, his dead patient was still strapped into his gurney, “hanging from the ceiling like a stranded parachutist.” In “The Gasper,” an old man bedevilled by panic attacks lies in an emergency room and casually weighs its merits against those of the town’s other hospital, as if he were a traveller judging a hotel.
Wangersky also doesn’t go in for the cult of the unadorned sentence that makes a lot of so-called dirty realism such a grind to read. He rewards readers by frequently offering up sudden bursts of poetic prose: “Mary had left before the sleet started, when it was still fat drops of rain weeping down on the outside of the big street-side windows. I could tell that it was getting colder outside. The chemistry of weather was changing right in front of my eyes, so when the drips started to form into a lacy skein of wet ice at the bottom of the glass, I wasn’t really surprised.” Passages like this one help take the sting out of all those unhappy endings.