The Wild Blue Yonder

by Audrey Thomas,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0670829641

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Economy Of The Moment
by Larry Scanlan

There are more hard questions than easy answers in Audrey Thomas`s intriguing new fictions FIVE YEARS AGO someone asked Audrey Thomas if at the age of 50 she had reached her peak as a writer. She coyly wondered if her questioner meant pique, or perhaps peek, and went on to blame her father -- who would say, "What`s for dinner: Mother?" -- for the awful puns, word play, and curiosity about language that mark both her fiction and her conversation. Thomas will disinter old jokes and word games, offering them up to her readers in the most curious places, like commercial breaks in the middle of a human sacrifice. In her new collection of short fiction, The Wild Blue Yonder, Thomas continues to examine the death of a thousand cuts that men and women inflict on one another. There seems little doubt that she writes in part from experience. She once told a CBC Radio interviewer, "I think everybody writes autobiography. I think everybody writes one story, has one thing that really interests them, and I suppose what really interests me is the relationship between men and women; and how we lie to one another." Between lies, the men and women of The Wild Blue Yonder are desperate for a laugh, and if the laughs are made to come too hard upon the pain, this only underscores their desperation. Audrey Thomas has concocted a brew to protect her characters against the piousness and high seriousness that Such pain can generate. Admit the pain, she seems to say. Articulate it. By laughing you sidestep pain and therein lies a victory. But before considering the stories, consider the storyteller. Five years ago Audrey Thomas took her rightful position as a writer of stature in this country. She had long been published by Talonbooks, a gutsy but tiny publishing house on the West Coast. An American from upstate New York, Thomas had come to Canada in 1959 and begun to write on Galiano Island. By 1985 she had published four fine collections of short fiction, two novellas, four novels, and several radio plays. Thomas cadged a bit Of journalism here, some teaching there, making a pittance with her fiction, and, somehow, a go of it. After her marriage ended in 1972 (the novel Intertidal Life rises out of those post-marital ashes), she raised her three daughters alone. At One point she burned some of her papers -- the note,, and roughs of early Manuscripts -- to start tires in tier woodstove: for a writer, this is the equivalent Of burning money. Thomas concedes that these were years marked by poverty and struggle, yet there was also great joy to be had in working as a writer at home, affording an intimacy with her daughters that might otherwise have been denied. Like Joan Finnigan, another single mother who eked Out a living as a writer, she drew sustenance from her children. The fiction came and it was always deemed good, but still she WAS Oil the periphery, cut Off from the literary mainstream by the mountains and the short reach of her publisher. But then in 1985, Intertidal Life was published by Stoddart, mid since then her short stories (the last collection was called Goodbye Harold, Good Luck) have been published by Penguin. Her stories have been remarkable for their satiric insight into the sometimes awful state of human relations. Their author had early on reached her pique, or was that peek? The stories in The Wild Blue Yonder Suggest that at the heart of Thomass playfulness with words is an abiding respect for language. In one story a character observes that "Words were Such powerful things. Sometimes they were like dangerous animals -- once let out there was no) telling the damage they could do." Words for Thomas also offer distance from pain or an occasion to laugh it off. In one story the punster Thomas has two characters trying to name a house: Inn Hospitable vies with Inn Cognito and Inn Compatible. Another story features two cats named Perche, which means both "Why" and "Because" in Italian. In one a frail, older woman who uses the phrase "at death`s door" prompts thoughts of what deaths door might look like. And in yet another, a woman undergoing rests for breast cancer concocts unlikely saints` names such as St. 111, St. Ick, St. Op. -- the story`s running gag -- to help keep her fear at bay. Some may find the Thomas brand of humour insinuating itself upon, even undercutting, the stories. They will gag on the gags. The stories are marked by another sort of burnout wherein women throw darts at male targets. Call it art imitating life: womens` fiction has begun to reflect the staggering figures on incest, Molestation, Sexual abuse, wife-beating, date rape, and the assorted physical and mental assaults that women are prey to. I happened to read in succession lour collections of short stories by Canadian women writers -- Bronwen Wallace, Diane Schoemperlen, Janice Kulyk Keefer, and Audrey Thomas -- and found that they more or less shared a bleak and disparaging treatment of male characters. Here are men who betray, beat, desert, and at the very least antagonize, women. If writers are as autobiographical in their work as Thomas believes all writers are, these stories by some of Canada`s finest women writers stand as a chilling indictment of what a character in The Wild Blue Yonder calls "men-in-general." Meet, for example, some of the men and women in The Wild Blue Yonder. A woman in a story called "Roots" yells as her newborn son breaks through her vagina, "Why are there men?" "In the Groove" includes a woman, separated from her husband and given to wearing a T-shirt that reads, You Have to Kiss a Lot of Frogs Before You Meet a Prince. She and her friends tell jokes at the expense of men-in-general, such as this one. Question: "What`s the real reason we still need men?" Answer: "A vibrator can`t take out the trash." In "A Hunter`s Moon," Zoe asks her female friend, "Listen, Annette, do we really like them? I`m not talking about sex. I`m talking about like?" Not likeable at all is Larry, the male protagonist in the last-mentioned story. The story is also about one woman`s betrayal of another, but Larry is so acutely disagreeable that he -- more than the story itself -- lives on in the reader`s mind, like a bad smell from a fridge. He and Annette occasionally share a bed, but little else. Stoned and reckless at the wheel, he attempts to alleviate Annettes fears about his driving by calling her "poor bunny." He is "the kind of person you`d be sorry, later, that you`ve told the story of your life to." He is bald and selfabsorbed. Toast crumbs gather at the corners of his mouth. He is the kind of man a woman can talk to on the telephone and watch "The Journal" at the same time; the kind of man whose pelvic thrusts inspire in Annette thoughts of the nine-times table, the names of the American states, or the conjugation of the French verb etre. When she does dismiss him, she does so with satiric finality. But why did Annette even let this jerk get close to her? How could she feel even the slightest twinge of jealousy when he made advances to Zoe? Thomas offers her readers more hard questions than easy answers. In "Roots," a broken teapot comes to symbolize the differences between a husband -- who has Thomas`s love for language -- and wife. At story`s end, the wife has caught up with her husband at a petting zoo, and wonders what her sons will remember of this day, years from now. Will it be the black lamb the kids are petting, the Japanese couple her husband is photographing, the dandelions flourishing, "or their father and mother shouting about a teapot broken on the kitchen floor?" For parents, it is a haunting question. This economy of the moment is reminiscent of the work of the late Raymond Carver, a fine American writer who could have asked that very same question. Like Carver, Thomas offers to her readers a kind of literary shorthand. The stories may seem slight at first, but their effect amplifies over time. Nor are all the stories written in this evidently simple, at times naif, style. "The Slow of Despond:` about a missionary`s wife who goes mad and murders her own child, moves fluidly from past to present. The stories are marvelous in their range: "Ascension" is a touching piece about an older Greek woman who lures another, much younger woman out of self-imposed exile. "In the Groove" is told from the viewpoint of a young boy just beginning to feel the power of adolescent anger. "Trash!` is a disturbing story about a Vancouver landlord and tenant, about the respective lots of the privileged and the dispossessed. "The Happy Farmer:` about a woman being harassed by a male neighbour, reminded me of a Bonnie Burnard story in which men in a pickup truck follow a woman in a car. Both stories describe the particular fear that only women, hunted women, can know. The title story is the sad, funny tale of a wonderfully imaginative man who returns scarred from the Second World War and finds a job as a Mr. Peanut: dressed in papier-mache shell, top hat, and cane he dispenses Planters` Peanuts samples on the street. The notion seems strange but perfectly Thomas-ian, as strange as life itself; a wounded man finds consolation behind a peanut costume. At one point, he thinks of the teenage boys killed in action and concludes that had he not been shot down in the Pacific he would have deserted. "It`s too wild," he says to his young daughter while laughing a pain-filled laugh, "up there in the wild blue yonder." The wild blue yonder, the laughter and the pain: these are the chosen territories of Audrey Thomas. She navigates them with uncommon skill and bold instincts

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