Damage Done by the Storm

by Jack Hodgins
ISBN: 0771041527

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A Review of: Damage Done by the Storm
by W. J. Keith

It is now almost thirty years since Jack Hodgins burst on to the Canadian literary scene like an unheralded comet. Spit Delaney's Island (1976), a book of accomplished short stories, introduced readers to the fascinating if slightly wacky world of Vancouver Island as seen from a dazzlingly original young writer's perspective, with its rich collection of varied, vulnerable, but endearingly human local characters. This was followed by two novels, The Invention of the World (1977) and The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979), that brought into Canadian writing an element of imaginative fantasy (or "magic realism," as it was called then) more playful and less cerebral than that of Robert Kroetsch. Then, in 1981, The Barclay Family Theatre, another story collection, was published, containing a range of stories moving from the hilarious to the chilling, the poignant to the farcical, loosely unified by the presence in each story of at least one Barclay and the occasional Macken (several of whom appear again here).
Within six years, then, Hodgins had succeeded in establishing himself not only as a new writer of considerable importance but as one who, like Hugh Hood, seemed equally at home in novels or the short-story form. Since then, however, he has concentrated on full-length fiction-until the appearance of this new volume.
Hodgins's long-term admirers will find much to welcome here that is pleasantly familiar. "The Doctor's Wife", for example, introduces "Hard-hearted Hazel," also known as "Hazel Haulback, Highball Hazel, and The Terror of the Woods," a larger-than-life, hard-living, hard-swearing female denizen of the loggers' world Hodgins catches so well. Another story, "The Crossing", takes place on one of his much-loved B.C. ferries, while the title-story, located in or around an almost snowbound Ottawa, revisits Hodgins's second-favourite setting after Vancouver Island itself. Moreover, the longest story in the book, "Inheritance", a novella of over seventy pages, not only divides its setting between B.C. and the nation's capital but presents such familiar figures as Frieda, Eddie, and Nora Macken in old age (the first two are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary!). We thus have the pleasurable experience of getting reacquainted with old friends in intriguingly new situations.
Yet Hodgins has even more to offer. An already enviable range is here notably extended. I have always been an admirer of Hodgins's range, but was nevertheless astonished by the technical ease displayed in these marvellously lucid, finely cadenced, but unselfconscious stories. Despite recurrences of characters and settings, each story inhabits its own unique imaginative world, conveyed with admirable economy and lack of fuss. The seeming effortlessness of his style (or, to be more accurate, styles), relaxed and colloquial but never slangy or vulgar, is highly impressive. He has evolved a beautifully poised literary language that sounds realistic and never draws attention to itself, yet is able to portray ordinary, not noticeably articulate people convincingly and sympathetically.
Above all, Hodgins can make his often bizarre situations sound perfectly natural and credible. In the opening story, for example, a worker who constructs models of feet for a firm of Orthotics is enamoured, in a semi-mythical way vaguely suggestive of the Pygmalion and Galatea story, with the foot of a client-patient and, by a process of imaginative and amorous synechdoche, becomes obsessed with the beauty of the whole woman. But what in a lesser writer would be a solemn and clinical study of foot-fetishism is transformed into a touching tale involving imagination, loneliness, and genuine affection.
Hodgins is also notable for presenting a decidedly contemporary world without any hint of postmodern trickiness. The one story that could be trendily labelled as "metafictional" is "Galleries", in which a female literary scholar and her photographer son visit William Faulkner's Mississippi and get involved in a study of contrast between an author's imaginative vision and a geographical reality. It is an absorbing story even if read straightforwardly, but seasoned students of Hodgins will recognize an additional complexity: it is well-known in literary circles that he came under the dangerous influence of Faulkner at an impressionable age and spent years extricating himself from the shadow of the southern novelist. As a result, readers can not only compare their own impression of "Hodgins country" with his own "take" on Yoknapatawpha, but can also appreciate one writer's canny analysis of the intense regionalism of another. Yet the story impresses for its sheer literary quality, not (thank goodness!) as a contribution to a theoretical problem.
The dust-jacket forecasts, accurately enough, that this new book will "renew the debate among his admirers about the comparative excellence of his novels and short stories." Somewhat to my surprise, I find that, for me, despite all my admiration for the novels, this book ultimately weighs down the scale in favour of the short stories. In some of his later novels, I got the feeling that Hodgins was trying just a little too hard, as if the burden of success was becoming somewhat oppressive. In particular, I have to state that I found his most recent novel, Distance (2003), ill-focused and lumbering. If, however, other readers shared this judgment, I am delighted to announce that Damage Done by the Storm should reassure them. This is a masterful collection of a writer at the height of his powers. It guarantees Hodgins a high place among the gratifyingly large number of fine short-story writers that have graced Canadian literature in recent decades. This is a volume that should on no account be missed.

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