DON DICKINSON has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, and used to be, among other things, a shepherd. His collection of stories, Blue Husbands, was short-listed for the Governor General's Award this year. Nova Scotia-born Rick Rofihe is a professor of creative writing at Columbia, and has published most of his stories in the New Yorker. Shortly after his collection of short fiction, Father Must, was sent to me, Rofihe received a major American award for writing. Despite such handicaps, Dickinson and Rofihe are writers of considerable talent and show promise that they might elude the quicksand of early acclaim.
Dickinson's protagonists are usually middle-aged men, separated or divorced - their wives having left them for more successful men - who find themselves performing bizarre acts of self-imposed penance: Hogarth has to swallow chains, McArdle takes advice from a talking crab, Sadler attempts 33,000 push-ups in front of his estranged wife's house, Grissom saves a Gerard Manley Hopkins-spouting man bent on suicide, Burton maintains a nightly vigil outside the home of his ex-wife and children. The names and the personalities are undeniably similar, as are the themes: commitment, integrity, endurance - the ability to emerge from a cocoon spun of loss and rejection with a recaptured sense of self-worth (even, in one case, a recaptured wife). What makes Dickinson's work exciting, though, is not its thematic content but its style: comic, fast-paced, with a flair for dialogue reminiscent of Richler, and precise one-liners counterpointed to a narrative attuned to the absurd. In the following excerpt Hogarth and his acrobatic psychologist, Burdock, are negotiating a fee for his treatment:
"Look," the psychologist said. "I'm going out on a limb here. The association could have my ass for this, but what the hell. There are ethical considerations."
"Ethics are okay with me," Hogarth said. "It's money that's the problem."
Burdock flipped off the window sill and landed lightly on his feet. "Okay. Fine. We'll work around that....For a flat eight hundred, I'll send you right to the warehouse."
"Eight hundred dollars?"
"Seven-fifty then - but I'm (-lying. Seven-fifty and you're killing me."
"Maybe 1 could squeeze that out of my bank card," Hogarth said. He had a hare] time following Burdock, who appeared to he whipping off some sort of handspring over the furniture.
Not all of the stories are quite so offthe-window sill. One of the best is "The Sample Case": under the terms of his grandfather's will, the young narrator and his grandmother have to drive the dead man's former sales route and distribute a number of sealed envelopes left in his sample case. Their progress is a re-enactment of the salesman's life, giving and taking, that culminates in a meeting with his illegitimate son. A predictable ending detracts only slightly from what is a successful foray into Alice Munro territory - the deep caves of a buried life. Unlike Dickinson's, Rick Rofihe's stories lack occasions. There is no spatial or temporal context for them - merely a voice in a permanent state of musing:
So far, Simmi hasn't asked me one single question about Buck - not a direct one, not an indirect one, not one. She also doesn't seem a bit interested in hearing anything about when he and 1 were together, or how we got together, or about us splitting up.
This is the opening of "Jelly Doughnuts," but it might equally well begin almost any of the stories in Father Must. Here's a paragraph from the title story:
It's a nice place, this place; in the day, it has very good light. It's the same place that it was when she first brought me here - same full cupboards, same clean table. 1 did paint the ceilings, but everything else is the same, except for a few things now that are mine and more stuff that's the kid's.
Rofihe's narrators vary widely in age, sex, and ethnic background, but they speak in a rhetorically neutered, adrift-in-the-present-tense prose that makes it difficult to differentiate them. The narratives weave toward minor epiphanies, backing and filling, curving around their characters with a seeming lack of coherence. Yet they are
strangely compelling, as the refusal to make plain their meanings gives more depth to implication.
My favourite, only 500 words long, is "Snowsuit." An eight-year-old boy in a snowsuit is disturbed when a lady asks him if he's all right because she watched him for 15 minutes and he didn't move. Not a promising idea for a story, perhaps, but Rofihe makes it a metaphysical puzzle: who is wasting time here - the boy who didn't move for 15 minutes or the lady who watched him? And if people are inevitably to get ideas about you, perhaps it's important that they be the right ideas.