Learning to Swim

by Larry Lynch
ISBN: 189403192X

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A Review of: Learning to Swim
by John Oughton

Larry Lynch is a New Brunswick writer with one novel out. In this, his first collection of short stories, where the protagonists are fairly ordinary men, he alternates between short, almost sketchy tales and longer ones which have the density-and sometimes the complexity-of aspiring novels. There's another tension in the stories which keeps them interesting. First collections often reveal a writer's literary influences, and Lynch seems to have one foot solidly in the pool of realism, and the other in the somewhat airier world of magic realism, where almost anything can happen. He writes with an assured, economical style throughout, but the flavour of the fiction changes from story to story.
The first story, one of the longer efforts, is "The Rope", and it conveys more about the realities of pig farming than most city readers will want to know. But, to its credit, it's also the story of a family unhappy in its own way, with an enigmatic, alcoholic father, a suicidal grandfather, a supportive mother, and sons who leave as soon as they can and rarely return. While this is a fairly grim read, the writer's sense of detail and incongruity keep it from being unbearable: after the protagonist, known only as "the boy" is discovered holding the rope with which Grandpa did the deed, the mother "covered her mouth with a trembling hand. A lemon square and some macaroons lay in the dirt where they had fallen." The next story puts an amusing twist on the same theme of the dubious father, but this time, instead of a bottle, he is identified with a dummy, "Buddy", with whom he used to perform a ventriloquist act. Buddy speaks the truths that his owner can't.
The two longest, and most novella-like, stories are also the most impressive. The title story weaves a narrative about a middle-aged writer taking his son to swimming lessons (and starting an affair with the teacher) together with a story he is working on-about a writer. These passages includes notes about the process, which sometimes amuse: "...Blow Job Blow Job - stereotypical male fantasy? What would Margaret A. say about all this?" This kind of postmodern writing-within-writing is by now a well-worn conceit, but Lynch keeps it fresh with interesting twists and details, as well as the occasional image that draws all the disparate threads together. This is a skillful meditation on writing, parenting, loving and ageing.
The second of these two extended successes, "Topography", concerns a Toronto man living with a woman bodybuilder who volunteers to help mudslide survivors in a Latin American country. This is the landscape of magical realist fiction, and here the fantastic elements are also a sexual fantasy, in which silent women straddle the protagonist while they watch a movie together. Oddly, this story seems a bit awkward while it is in more or less home territory, and more assured in the exotic setting. But it has some compelling moments, and a good balance of tragedy and pleasure, rather like life itself.
The weaker stories in the collection suffer from showing their influences too obviously. The more sustained of the two, "The Weight of a Blind Dog", draws on sources that include Gabriel Garcia Marquez (the setting is even called "Garcia") and fables. A blind dog that never ages lives in a town that never changes, and which hardly anyone ever leaves. Here the elements of the fantastic don't add up to a gripping narrative, and it ends up mired in reality, rather than levitating into surprise. The brief fiction "Absolutes" will ring bells for anyone who has worked in a factory, but its surprise ending carries a scent of Kafka. Unlike that paranoid master's works, this one doesn't quite know when it has said just enough.
On balance, there are enough strong stories and moments in this collection to confirm that Gaspereau Press chose a writer worthy of the exquisite production given this volume. In these days of cost-cutting and endangered small presses, it's a pleasure to feel the heft of a book whose design and construction recall the early days of Coach House Press and Press Porcpic. With an unusually large font, narrow columns, laid paper, and tasteful use of drop caps and other typographical effects, Learning to Swim is a pleasure to read for its tactile qualities, as well as its stories.

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