From the cover illustration-Alex Colville's painting of a young woman peering out at us through binoculars-to the final sentence (".I think of it still, at moments like this, when it seems to be important to try to understand how I came to be transported from the boy I was then to the man I am today"), Dave Margoshes' third collection of stories traces one consistent theme: coming to terms with our histories, relating to our past, the "long distance calls" of the title. But more than anything, it is a book about fathers.
Three of the most memorable stories-"A Book of Great Worth", "Feathers and Blood", and "A Distant Relation"-concern what is apparently the same family, and are all told by a son about his father, a journalist at a Yiddish paper in New York, who is somehow the emotional heart of each narrative, despite featuring rather marginally in "Feathers and Blood". These are small, domestic stories. "A Book of Great Worth" begins, "My father was there when the Hindenburg went down," but moves quickly into a delicate tale about the father and a mute young woman looking for her brother, and the reverberations within the family that their relationship creates. And perhaps their most important feature is the entirely unspoken connection between son and father, the implication that these stories from another time and culture have shaped the writer deeply, intangibly; the sense that this father was quietly and truly loved.
Even in the sadder, more troubled family of "Pennies on the Track", the son looks back at his father with a strange kindness. In the final scene of the story, the mother, during an argument of unusual ferocity ("I don't mean to suggest that my parents fought all the time, or that they fought with fervour and irreducible bitterness, they didn't") hits her husband with a baseball bat, and the son suddenly, unreasonably, remembers a time when he set his bed on fire at the age of six-"He didn't raise his hands, and this is the moment I take with me.blood pouring down his collar, his eyes closed as if, by shutting out the sight of it he could protect himself from her anger, mouth looped open into some lopsided combination of pain and grin, his hands at his sides, the fingers jerking with concentration the way they had when they took the flames from me for themselves, waiting for the next blow."
In "This Moment, with All Its Promise", a woman now in her forties begins to search for her birth parents. A story emerges, in bits and pieces with no final clarity, mostly through letters and documents. It is not a particularly unusual story and comes to no dramatic conclusion; but at the centre of it is this woman, "Kathleen Malloy DeNiro Svenson Hindemith Alcorn Logan, that's me," trying to come to terms with family, loss, and forgiveness, and to start "knowing what she wanted."
Some of the stories that are not primarily about relationships between generations are more uneven, though some of them are very strong. "A Message from the Brontės" uses-successfully-the somewhat dangerous strategy of presenting us with a scenario that appears to feature a young wife badly treated by an older, illiterate husband who burns her only book, then goes behind the initial picture to show us a surprisingly complex, nuanced and, in the end, tenderly respectful relationship. "Something of Value", though using a fairly familiar story of a young man's first year at university and his crush on the distant and "exotic" daughter of a diplomat, is nevertheless moving, partly because of a really gruelling scene with the dean. ("Can't and impossible, those are two words I've banished from my vocabulary.there's no such thing as wasting one's time in the academic world, no, no.") "Night is Coming" is funny and touching; I was charmed by the thunderous, passionate, somewhat obsessive narrator, and appreciated the lack of closure at the end.
On the other hand, "River Rats", which I felt was the weakest story in the book, does not seem to transcend in any way the standard "mid-life crisis" story, and features one of Margoshes' less convincing female characters, the narrator's wife, who does not take on any life as a character. (It seems she actually greets her husband by saying, "Hello, darling, how was your day?") And "The Man That I am", though it is made up of many fine parts, never quite comes together as a whole.
Still, these are mostly small complaints, and there is no story in the book which is not worth reading more than once (with the possible exception of "River Rats", but this may just be my own lack of interest in male mid-life crisis).
There is a good deal of sadness in this book. Nevertheless, considering how difficult and static-filled calls between our past and our present tend to be, Margoshes' voice is surprisingly confident and serene. An understated wisdom is buried in these stories.
Maggie Helwig is a poet and critic who lives in Toronto.