Coming Attractions

by David Helwig And Maggie Helwig
128 pages,
ISBN: 0887507239

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Surprising Voices
by Marni Jackson

IN A NOVEL, irony can become tedious ? alL that knowingness. But in the short story, irony is perfect: astringent, mischievous, and double?edged, it can infuse a simple story or a string of images with sidelong meaning. And since Canadians are for some reason deeply afflicted by, or gifted with, irony, it follows that they can be accomplished, even dazzling, short story writers. The evidence arrives (as it does every year, thanks to the commitment of Oberon Press) in two new collections, edited by David Helwig and Maggie Helwig. Obviously they had to choose from too much good writing, because both books are a delight, full of strong, surprising voices.

In Best Canadian Stories, Joyce Marshall gets tough in "Blood and Bone," a story about a cool Toronto woman who meets her adopted daughter, given up at birth, in the Lord Elgin hotel in Ottawa. The daughter was raised by Christian zealots and she is eager to forgive her mother ? who does not require forgiveness. Susan Swan has written a sly, cool empirical story called "Sluts" in which a young girl on a cold day learns much from a line of frozen lingerie. Genni Gunn loosens up the form with a journal written by a girl on the road with a band, slowly letting, go of a love affair back home. Bronwen Wallace tells a story about a girl who played. Elvis's Don't Be Cruel a hundred times a day.

Timothy Findley offers up an odd tale of two men who both love a wild girl who insists on having a baby. 'Me baby is born deformed, the girl fiercely cares for it anyway, and then the mother dies of cancer ?not exactly an upbeat tale, but Findley extracts from it a stubborn faith in various sorts of human love. The opening story, by Carol Shields, is very apt. A woman puts on a yellow skirt, a man buys a mango, a secretary whispers into an empty baby carriage ? these images, strung together, add up to a lighthearted story about the necessity of illusions.

While I'm indulging in theories about Canadian short stories, there must be something about the tight?lipped, cleanlined prairies that gives writers there the edge. In Coming Attractions, two of the three writers included are Saskatchewan men, The rural life they write about seems to have bred an ominous sense of yearning ("Waiting For Tuesday," by Christopher Fisher) and a neat, exact respect for details. Like a prairie view, their stories are little masterpieces of absence.

Rick Hillis is the most exciting writer here ? his story, "The Summer Tragedy Report,could easily have become a short novel. To say that it's about a 13?year?old city boy's summer on his cousin's ramshackle farm doesn't suggest the exhilarating toughness, humour, and honesty that characterize his writing. Uneventful on the surface of things, life on the farm seethes with ordinary violence, from the boys' bored sniping at frogs in the pond to the tension between the smart city kid and his bullyboy, cousin.

I The third writer, Carol Ann Wein, travels widely in her stories, from Brazil and Mexico to Nova Scotia. These are a little more self?consciously literary, but "Transients," in which a woman gets handed a Mexican baby during a quick bus stop in a border town, is striking.

All right, one last theory. In a country with so much sheer space and physical isolation, perhaps the short story is a useful way of bracketing experience. It gives daily life clear borders, and creates something complex but enclosed. Or it may be the lousy pay and pointlessness of short?story writing that makes it a labour of love and craft, undertaken for its own rewards. Whatever the reasons, these two collections are solid proof of Canada's shortstory strength


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