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D.W. Wilson in the Strutton Arms pub in London on Sept. 29, 2011. (Edmond Terakopian)
D.W. Wilson in the Strutton Arms pub in London on Sept. 29, 2011. (Edmond Terakopian)

Review: Short fiction

Torn from the real world Add to ...

Born and raised in B.C.’s Kootenay Valley, D.W. Wilson now lives in England. Early versions of these linked stories have appeared in literary magazines in Canada, Ireland and Britain. “Write what you know,” the old-school saw to aspiring authors, has taken knocks over the years, but Wilson does a stunning job of resurrecting its prescriptive force. His fractious Kootenay town of Invermere rings with authenticity.

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John and Will are father and son, but the jab and feint of their relationship feels more like the locker-room sparring of football buddies. Still, there’s no doubt who’s quarterbacking. John, a veteran RCMP officer, is heading to Kosovo with a peacekeeping contingent. Shortly before departure, he joins his son at their annual judo tournament. These two share a sealed pressure cooker of the heart. The story’s integration of shackled emotion with the cordial brutality of judo is a wonder to behold.

We meet Ray, an electrician past his prime, mooching some construction work off an old friend in a town he hasn’t been near in years. Plot sneaks up in this story, borne on laconic, pitch-perfect dialogue, a work-site setting of palpable immediacy, and suggestions of emerging desire. Electricians, apparently, drill a lot of holes through spruce two-by-fours. When Ray does it, you smell the resinous heat of the pierced wood. Later, Ray and his friend’s wife find themselves alone together at either end of a couch, the air quietly humming between them. John Fowles has called it “the undeclared knowledge of a shared imagination.” Wilson, here and all through the book, evokes unspoken erotic tension with equal precision, but in the language of gestures. “She turned her palms upward and stared at them, first one then the other.”

Body language is paramount in this prose: The things people do with their hands, their eyes, a turn of the head or with any number of objects, a steering wheel, a mug of coffee, an extension cord, food. “He mashed potatoes with barbaric, two-handed thrusts.” Wilson seems simply to state what he’s seeing in his mind’s eye, in sentences that often feel as if they’ve been intact since they popped from keyboard to screen. It’s the elemental opposite of honed writing. Every page brings sharp visuals, unerringly evokes the feel of surfaces or weather or clothes, or wafts scents that you forgot you knew. The writing, both as observation and as storytelling, seems to tap effortlessly into a collective subconscious, while focus on the particular doesn’t waver. T-shirt messages are a running gag: “You Can Run, but You Can Also Scream.” “I Sleep with a Pillow under My Gun.”

A math teacher drinks alone at home, slowly admitting the likelihood that his wife’s weekend “trip to Calgary” for a “trade show” is neither, and that his son is probably with her. This entry is visibly honed, the prose edging toward self-conscious display, the portrait of bookish, ineffectual father and rough-edged, bitter mom not quite blossoming from idea to full flower.

Then we’re back on track with Will and his dad, just back from Kosovo. John has a lung still healing from a gunshot wound and spends his days ricocheting between tough-as-nails warrior and depressed convalescent. This particular dad-and-son dynamic is Wilson’s forte. His flawless observing of coded, aggressive-evasive male love makes the prose itself recede completely; form is rendered invisible by its meaning.

Most entries read like well-structured chapters, their resonance enhanced by the open-endedness. They feel like scraps torn from the real world. Some tales, less impressive, repost similar characters and events in formulaic frames. The macho father-son riff gets recast with new sets of names, but they sometimes come off as blurred copies of archetypes Will and John. A stunning exception is the duo of Conner and Winch in the 50-page story Valley Echo, with passages that made me linger just to savour their artistry, their gift of a fresh distillation of everything you know about fathers and sons, men and men, men and women.

The cover blurb, for once, nails it. There are indeed echoes of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver here – most strikingly Carver, in content certainly – but Wilson’s description and dialogue also attain the same lean, elemental punch, a total and exhilarating exclusion of the extraneous. It reads as homage, devotional more than imitative.

Wilson’s endings can sometimes say too much, or slide into a dissipating lyricism. He needs to trust his subtext and his readers’ smarts. But it almost feels a disservice to dwell on his lapses, a bit like mentioning scratches on a bar of gold.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer.

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