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Country of Cold

by Kevin Patterson
308 pages,
ISBN: 0679310460


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Sensitive Men and Insensitive Women
by Nancy Wigston

Kevin Patterson's first book, The Water In Between, was a wry, superbly intelligent take on one of fiction's most seductive scenarios: the romantic who runs away to sea. In Patterson's case, a failed romance combined with a dismal career as an army doctor in the prairies resulted in his decision to sail away to Tahiti. The fact that he had no sailing experience and bought an unattractive ferro-concrete boat did not deter him. Partnering with a seasoned sailor who, luckily, was at equally loose ends in the life department, he took off for the South Pacific. The book that followed was brilliant, filled with the odd types met on the voyage and the equally odd types brought along between the covers, like travel writer Bruce Chatwin. The novice writer saw his debut effort grace the front cover of The New York Times Book Review, accompanied by a glowing review, the first of many.
Anyone who has read The Water In Between will be predisposed to like Patterson's first collection of stories, Country of Cold. This, as every writer and reviewer knows, is unfair. Country of Cold is different; it is fiction, not travel¨although most successful travel books are kissing cousins to fiction. Unfair comparisons aside, Patterson, who earned an MFA after his MD, and has moved to Saltspring Island, remains preoccupied with many of the same themes that energized his first book: escape, doctoring, relationships gone awry, weather. Just as there is a lot of weather on the ocean, these stories are bursting with weather, most of it Canadian, much of it bad. "What refuge existed in the snow and wind?" wonders one of Patterson's many outsiders in the Far North. Very little, as it turns out.
Almost everyone in these stories grew up in Dunsmuir, Manitoba (Patterson himself is from Selkirk), graduating from high school in 1984. The form of the book echoes a novel's episodic structure, so that we become familiar with a recurring cast of characters: Lester, the twins Robert and Albert, Daphne (who worked at the Dairy Queen), Cora (who didn't), and so on. Occasionally characters show up without a connection to Dunsmuir, but the common thread is small towns and, yes, the weather. Acting like connective tissue is Patterson's literary tick; he concludes most stories by dating them: "This was in 1997," for instance, or "This was in 1984," or, rather oddly, "This was in 2004." A sort of yearbook structure takes hold, and there is an effort made to link things up in the final story, about a class reunion of the Dunsmuir kids, who, I'm sorry to report, have largely turned into a sad lot.
It wasn't always so. The initial story, "Les Is More", is quite perfect. Abandoned by his wife, the gormless Les works as a bartender in the town of Rushing River Falls. His friend Cindee works with him and expects that her boyfriend, Sam, will leave her too, for reasons that don't seem very rational. She smokes and waitresses, and the former might bother some, but it's not that. Sam is handsome, a talented welder, and has created some spectacular objects in his career, including an "escape module" for a military submarine. Escape and the glamour offered by the old tradition of going over the Falls in a barrel appeal strongly to Les in his bloated, heartbroken state; his body resembles an "engorged chigger," following a regime of self-medication with junk food. Then he happens on Sam's state-of-the-art metal container. Deciding to turn his back on humiliation, he thinks, "You have to aim for something bigger, just to stand yourselfÓchoose a beautiful thing, imagine better, or everything just gets worse." This is the standard many of Patterson's creations live by; it is not their fault that their choices have unforeseen consequences, though this is not quite the same thing as being blameless.
The Dunsmuir twin in "Sick in Public", who decides to enter a banana-split-eating-contest is a good example of a bad decision-maker. We first meet Robert as a grown-up, in a Paris story, "Interposition", while he conducts an ill-fated affair with a married American woman. Both episodes illustrate the man's attraction to women he fails to impress; it's no coincidence that Rob in Paris gets along best with nine-year-old Giselle, his lover's child. Daphne from the Dairy Queen was the early object of Rob's affections; she too bewildered him with her seeming indifference. Years pass, but nothing changes for the Dunsmuir boys. The woman in Paris reacts to a meeting between the two men who love her, by "laughing like an idiot, on and on." Eight pages later, Cindee, Les's friend, responds to a kindly-meant remark in a similar way: "She laughed like an accordion, staccato wheezing into the telephone."
Prone to explosions of laughter in the face of male sincerity, it is no wonder that the women in Patterson's stories tend to find themselves alone. That doesn't mean they're not confident and capable. Far from it. As Laurel tells her girlfriends in the eponymous story, "We're the smartest and most interesting people we know. This self-questioning comes from within, it's part of our neurosis, our intelligence, maybe." Daphne, by this time a doctor, forms the nexus of this twenty-two-page story, in which many of Patterson's themes coalesce. Having arrived in (escaped to?) the cold reaches of Partridge River, she has failed to save a young Innu girl suffering from both burns (the tent caught fire) and hypothermia. Tragedy results from what Daphne believes was her failure as a medic, but it's hard to tell from Patterson's riveting description of her attempts to save eight-year-old Sarah how guilty she was in clinical terms; she did receive a mild reprimand from the College of Physicians of the Northwest Territories.
The harsh landscape of the north, where a September afternoon spent fly-fishing turns to winter in a flash, caught this Kablunauk (non-Innu) unaware. "Exquisite summer tundra disappears" into wind and snow, leaving fear and chaos in its wake. Joining Patterson's many outsiders, Daphne flees the North, lives on her savings and develops a passion for watching wrestling in Winnipeg, where she meets a performer called Rick the Stick. Trying to console her, Rick argues that most of us are just average and should accept it; he receives this exasperated response: "Here's the deal. We're both losers. Everyone who works with us thinks so. Our parents suspect it and so do we." I've rearranged Patterson's narrative sequence here, since he doesn't reveal the details of Daphne's catastrophic experience until the second part of the story, but nothing, I think, really explains her self-pitying mean-spiritedness, and Rick withdraws from her as if stung. But Patterson provides one of his redemptory surprises when "loser" Rick gets accepted onto the WWF in the States. One of the few men in Patterson's pantheon who aren't doughy (one poor schmo is twice likened to Oreo cookie filling), Rick achieves something he desires. It's a nice touch when Daphne appears at the Dunsmuir reunion, married now, with a son. Of course it is her husband, another doctor, who nurses their son after he gets sick eating the local fries.
Escape is the theme of "Boatbuilding", another story that recollects Patterson's first book. A woman named Carol leaves her wayward daughter, Brandy, and Jim, her passive, Oreo-cookie-filling husband, for Churchill, where she builds her own boat and takes off. We get tangibly close to Carol and her project here, her workshop with its smell of muskrat pelts and motor oil, the various tasks she must learn in freezing winter to make her project a success. Her parenting has been a failure, for reasons never satisfactorily explained. Focused on the task at hand, Carol does remember something going wrong, with her "kewpie doll" daughter's childhood. A librarian who believes that "with a good book you can do anything," Carol believed that with a child "you could just slip into stupor and sleepwalk through her life as you sleepwalked through your own." (Surely few mothers believe this.) So she builds her boat from a book, and proceeds with a project she can control. Patterson provides no pat answers for his angst-ridden protagonists. Sharing the stupor of growing up in small town Manitoba, they tend towards numbness or outright denial about their failures. Nature may provide its beautiful moments¨like annual meteor showers¨but even these are wasted on people. They "don't even talk about it. And it happens anyway, without them." If the natural world surrounding us is indifferent, some consolation is found in the beckoning sea. "The water went everywhere," Carol thinks as she makes her escape, "even home." Perhaps she will find a book that will explain how she can find her way there. ˛
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