Post Your Opinion
Praise The Words And Pass The Ammunition
by John Metcalf

Once you get past their promising credentials, these two short-story collections don`t really have a great deal to offer RICK HILLIS`S Limbo River comes highly recommended. It won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize for 1990 and was first published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. The New York Times Book Review described it as "...splendid work indeed:` Russell Banks said of it: "A wonderful book... in the rarefied company of the best of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff...:` Unfortunately, this praise is wildly exaggerated. The nine stories in Limbo River are, in the main, loose, expansive, and episodic. Hillis seems to have little feel for the characteristic virtues of the form - compression, tension, inevitability of shape. The story "Blue;" for example, is the tale of Norma, who applies to work on a pipeline welding job, and is assigned as a crew member to the team run by the redneck and misogynous Eddy Lubnickie. After much trial and humiliation Norma achieves a kind of truce with Eddy, but only by pretended subservience. We have, meanwhile, come to sympathize increasingly with Norma through experiencing her unemployed husband Colin - who at nearly 40 still rides a Harley and bums beer money off her to buy drinks for a girl with "peroxide hair, dark sooty eyes, and expensive high-heeled boots" - and by being exposed to her children Tracy and Terry, who live in the house like hostile guests. The closing scene of the story, where Norma dances with Eddy, "aware he thinks he is doing the leading;" is too confined an ending, too imposed; Hillis`s material tugs and swells, demanding expansion and flight. We want to know more about Eddy and whether the other crew member, Murdoch, finds a girl and whether Tracy... Another story "Big Machine," features the same cast of characters, and both stories are built episodically by cutting from character to character and narrating their activities in discrete scenes. It`s difficult to avoid thinking that either story could have been expanded to novel length or, alternatively, that they could have been run together and enlarged into a much longer presentation of the characters` lives. The most successful stories in the book are "Blue;" "Limbo River," and "Summer Tragedy Report:" The other stories range from forgettable to unfortunate. "Limbo River" is narrated by Sean, the eight-year-old son of the alcoholic Anita Sobchuck. The story chronicles their moving into an apartment building and getting to know the janitor, Marcel, whose boozy philosophy is "We`re here for a good time not a long time" and "Give me welfare or give me death." The pleasures of the story lie in the comedy of the child`s worldly wisdom. When Anita accepts a first beer from Marcel after having been on the wagon, Sean records: "I knew I was in for another uncle. Which meant I would be losing both my mother and only friend in one fell swoop, but at least we`d have a phone." "Summer Tragedy Report" is the delightful tale of a summer holiday on his uncle`s Saskatchewan farm as told by sheltered and precocious 13-year-old Alex. The tale records Alex`s summer-long outsmarting of his bullying and violent cousin Ray. The story is crammed with gorgeous and persuasive detail: For breakfast, Aunt Ruby fried up some fresh eggs in the grease from thick slices of bacon they cured themselves in a derelict upright refrigerator kept out by Chick`s trailer. Hillis gets everything about this threadbare farm exactly and comically right: The farm was by no means a thriving operation. Back of the shabby, unpainted house was a grove of bony poplars that hid Uncle Chick`s trailer from sight of the main road. The trailer, a rusted Scamper camper barely large enough to turn around in, looked ready for the dump. Back of this, the poplars continued up a grassy slope to the old pumphouse which I thought at first was a dilapidated outhouse. Twice a day I would learn, our rather marshy drinking water would be hauled out of there. From the pumphouse, I could see the rest of the farm. To the west was the cow pasture dotted with clumps of maple, clusters of caragana, and several dozen wrecked automobiles... How exactly right is "bony poplars;" as was "sooty" eyes in the quotation from "Blue:" And here is the citified Alex describing the outhouse: I found the worn path by the old refrigerator and followed it to a small clearing where the outhouse stood. I turned the sawed-off hockey stick that pinned the door shut from the outside, and it swung open, revealing warm stinking darkness split by dusty pinstripes of sun. Inside, heavy barn flies buzzed, occasionally thumping resoundingly into the walls or disappearing down one of the two holes only to reappear crazier than ever. The lovely texture of such writing convinces me that Hillis has a fine talent. Bu for what? Obviously, it seems to me, for warm comic novels, which could accrete and work out their own shapes and destinations as they meandered along. Hillis could well become a writer in the tradition of W O. Mitchell, but a writer much tougher and with a firmer and more poetic grip on language. If he does go on to write a novel, I`ll be the first in line at my local bookstore to buy a copy. What He Really Wants Is a Dog - stories by Katie Campell, an ex-Ontario writer - is a dog. I was amazed that anyone would have published this material, let alone published it in hardcover, in London, England. Those pieces in it that might be called stories are written in flat, stale language and are ineptly shaped to no fascinating end. And they`re the best bits. The other bits... "Billet Doux," two and one-third pages in length, describes a betrayed wife collecting fresh dog excrement, embedding her wedding ring in it, and sending the package by courier to her husband`s secretary. "Katherine the Great;" two and a half pages in length, is a description of the sex life of an upstairs nymphomaniac as heard by her friend in the flat below. Awakened one night by an extra loud noise, the narrator goes upstairs to find Katherine dead and pinned under a frantic, fallen horse. And this in central London. "Chorus from the Rock" is a litany of complaint, a suite of complaints, from a series of women about men, relatively normal sex, lesbian pleasures, sexual violence, sexual revenge, giving birth, affairs, miscarriages, herpes, etc. Other stories or - well - bits feature buggery and cancer. This impressively artless book is very glum and gloomy and leaves one with the impression that women`s lives are no fun at all. It also brought to mind a comment Evelyn Waugh made many years ago about the work of a hapless writer: dynamically third-rate.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us