Although Timothy Findley's first two story collections, Dinner along the Amazon and Stones did well critically, he has remained altogether casual about writing and publishing stories. In his third collection, Dust to Dust, he has even circumvented the time-honoured system of publishing stories first in journals or magazines. In this collection of nine stories, only one, "Americana", has appeared before. We are told that five of the others are to appear in journals "simultaneously" with the publication of the book itself. While this end-run quickly puts Findley into touch with his eager readership, which infallibly these days drives his books into bestsellerdom, this procedure has its obvious hazards. Secure that he has a loyal audience, the author can thin out his vision with self-parody, exaggeration, and stylistic facility.
The stories of Dust to Dust, which focus on death and murder, provide a few intimations of these dangers. For example, in his second collection, Stones, Findley featured two stories about a couple called Bragg and Minna. Bragg is a fastidious and inhibited bisexual fiction writer and Minna is his unbalanced wife, who also writes. While the stories in Stones are subtle and restrained, the two new Bragg and Minna stories in Dust to Dust, "A Bag of Bones" and "Come as You Are", display a discomfiting sensationalism and, in one episode, crude slapstick. Between Stones and Dust to Dust, both Bragg and Minna have become parodies of their earlier selves. Bragg is colder and more cavalier, Minna more unstable and hysterical.
As a point of anxiety for Minna, who is unaccountably obsessed with having children with the remote Bragg, there are the images in "Bag of Bones" of baby bodies thrown out in garbage bags or sealed into walls. This leads directly into "Come as You Are", which appropriately takes place on Hallowe'en, when the souls of the dead can freely mingle with the living. A speechless Hell's Angel appears on Minna's porch as an apparent trick-or-treater. Recalling the mute Nazi rapist of Findley's 1969 novel The Butterfly Plague, the biker looks "like one of those nightmare figures she has dreamt whose lips were sewn together and whose eyes were sewn open." Findley leaves the image hanging with little resolution other than to offer a modest shudder of horror. Although the ghoul is repelled by a decisive act of violence by Minna, we simply don't know if he will turn up again at her door or ours.
"Americana", set in 1970, has its darkly gothic aspects as well. A badly injured Vietnam veteran with an oddly beautiful body manages to convince the owner of an Army Surplus store in a grungy Manhattan neighbourhood to let him pose as a living mannequin in his front window. His body is grey, "displaying a range of wounds from head to toe that some have called perfection; matchless." Because it is so battered and yet so attractive, the soldier's living corpse clearly represents a contemporary St. Sebastian to the empty souls who pass by.
In "Hilton Agonistes", death comes in a massacre at a Caribbean resort. The story realizes the worst kind of nightmare that tourists can contemplate on the golden beaches in the Third World. A staid Canadian couple, Nicolas and Nicol Halifax, find their hotel invaded by local people who hack the prosperous visitors to pieces with machetes with cool impersonal efficiency. Nameless and faceless, the murderers kill the tourists as types, not individuals. Only the Halifaxes survive as witnesses who, like traumatized children, go sit primly in the early morning in canvas chairs and wait for help.
Murder of course inevitably makes more sense in a personal context. In "The Madonna of the Cherry Trees", the Vergerine sisters are compulsively attached to the marble angels and virgins of their church, which they tend and dust off with almost sexual fervour. In 1996 they are faced with a coolly mechanical murderer, whose history goes back to a World War II concentration camp in their ostensibly idyllic village in the Pyrenees. It was there that unspeakable crimes were committed. The grim irony of the sisters' lives is their attachment to sepulchral stone images when real martyrdom involving the violation of sexual innocence happened so close by, about which they pretended not to fully know. With the murders, fifty years suddenly collapse into what seems like only a few days. A well-spaced thirty-two pages, the story suggests an outline for a broader narrative, even a novella.
Findley lightens the load somewhat with a wholly irrelevant story, "Infidelity", which reads like a parody of Kieslowski's cinematic work Trois Couleurs. A stranger in a park notes the comings and goings of a neighbourhood and fabricates stories about the casual appearances of people. There is a sense, though, that Findley is again impatient for effect rather than for achieving a more satisfying resolution, particularly with the facile O. Henry twist at the end.
While most of the stories have vivid images and situations which display Findley's unquestioned technical mastery, Dust to Dust is a mixed offering. After his sometimes sentimental novella last year, You Went Away, it shows him back in familiar territory in which nightmares sprout in everyday life. Yet paradoxically even nightmares must be handled carefully. Because these ones often go too far, too fast, they tend to derail the potential of the narratives.
John Ayre is the author of Northrop Frye: A Biography (Random House)