"I play a twelve string and write songs that tell everything but the truth about love," says the narrator of "Johnny Fear & Debbie Dare", the first story in Christopher McPherson's first collection.
No story-writers and readers of fiction have to take this for granted-can ever succeed in telling you the truth, of course. We know this; we expect no more. But maybe we still don't entirely believe it, because we do keep trying to find a new way to tell the story, some way that will bring us, if not truth, something that feels closer to it. (We are sometimes heartless in our use and abuse of literal truth in the process.) Everything But the Truth is, in its way, about love; it is also about finding ways to tell the story.
On a careless reading, you could skim off the surface of these stories, finding them slight, cryptic, and overly clever. But there is more than that to this collection. The sheer variety of invention is impressive. One story starts with a zoo-keeper narrator being called upon to dismember a dead hippopotamus from the bottom of her pool. ("I like to think she died quietly, breathing out her soul in a delicate stream of bubbles, sinking one last time beneath the scuzzy waters of her pool. If she did suffer any death throes, only the elephants know.") Another character is briefly followed by Alfred Hitchcock, then inadvertently kills a stranger by throwing his television set out of the window, thus embarking on a life in organized crime. On the other hand, "The Children Who Sleep in the Jungle" is a small, sad meditation on children, death, and gardens, and "The Food of Love" is a delicate and tentative sketch of love and family; both these stories are free of any apparently extraordinary incident. (Gardens, in fact, form one of the book's major subthemes, playing a central role in not only "The Children Who Sleep in the Jungle", but also in "Baseboards", "Hydroponics", "Johnny Fear & Debbie Dare", and several others.)
The best stories in the collection are often those that are most directly about finding ways to tell the story. "This story has too many edges. However I try to handle it, it cuts," says Sheila, the narrator of "The Food of Love".
In "Richard's Secret"-a story that probably shouldn't work, but somehow does-a man named Richard, after dying of a heart attack while masturbating ("No such thing as safe sex"), leaves his gay brother William a ponderous legacy of thousands of pages of unspeakably banal sexual fantasies locked in protected text files on his computer's hard drive, leaving William to try to determine just what kind of story his brother was trying to tell him and why.
The interlocking voices of "The Eureka Effect", with its story of ice layers and a marriage shattering, and the final saving image of fire, build on each other in a fine and surprising way, while "Paranoia"-another story that works when it probably shouldn't-finds unexpected levels of depth and poignancy in the voice of its peculiar, obsessed, and slangy narrator.
"Falling", one of the strongest stories in the collection, is simply told backwards, section by section; a gimmick, maybe, but one that creates a surprising, haunting, and poignant effect. Incidentally-but a minor source of pleasure to me-it is one of those rare stories that treats people whose parents gave them names such as Karma and Tree as real people, with the same problems as those of us who escaped that fate.
In some cases, the devices for telling the story do not succeed. "Baseboards", with its unnecessarily clever metatextual layers, is actually somewhat irritating, though it does have some fine moments near the end ("Who ever heard of a man writing a story about vegetables, anyway?"). "Hydroponics" is pretty much just a bad cop movie with hippies, and "Into the Crystal Mountain", though impressive in parts, is mostly linguistic self-indulgence. Still, it says something about McPherson's range that he can even manage such strikingly different ways of failing.
McPherson is capable of startlingly delicate, poetic passages. "Alia falls asleep at her desk. She dreams they are playing for her clothes. They smoke and the differences between them dissolve. She can read the flaming script in their thought balloons. The stories they place on her body divide her like a kingdom" ("Falling"). Or, "The bath water cannot resist the wonderful temptation of the drain" ("After the Fall"). He also has a good colloquial, darkly comic voice, notably in "Maudie", "Hitchcock Diary", and "Paranoia". Perhaps oddly, he seems least at home in the most straightforward narrative voices, tending to launch into poetry when it is not necessarily called for; but the narrator's voice in "The Food of Love" is understated and exactly right.
I noticed that several of McPherson's narrators or principal characters appear to be trying to write novels (in fact, a McPherson-like narrator says, in "Falling", that he has promised "that I wouldn't write any more novels till I sold one of the first nine."). I don't want either to assume this is autobiographical or to lead anyone to break any promises, but still, I would be very interested to see what McPherson would do with a longer stretch of narrative. "If I were to write a novel.it would be wonderful," the narrator of "Falling" informs us. Well, just maybe it could be.
Maggie Helwig is a poet who lives in Toronto. For some years, she co-edited Best Canadian Stories (Oberon).