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Russell Smith plumbs the psyches of the seemingly superficial in frequently funny prose.

Title
Confidence
Author
Russell Smith
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Biblioasis
Pages
170 pages
Price
$19.95
Year
2015

Not all the characters in Russell Smith's new collection of stories are overpaid urban professionals who speak of human attributes in terms of currency, but such characters leave so chilling an impression you could be forgiven for remembering it that way. Confidence's titular story surveys a private club crawling with them, engaged in uniformly inane, obnoxious discussions about "horsepower torque ratio," "margin selling" or "this St. Tropez thing I have going."

As any regular reader of this publication knows, Smith, a long-time Globe and Mail columnist, is a gifted anthropologist of the urbane. Those gifts are on full display throughout Confidence. Everything anyone wears, says, drinks or eats is regarded first and foremost as an affectation. Behind those affectations there is, sometimes, something like a human being. Smith is typically referred to as a satirist, though I think his balance of contempt and compassion is too nuanced for such categorization. He plumbs the psyches of the seemingly superficial in frequently funny prose that exudes an understanding of their anxieties about ambition, class, stature and their own desirability. Smith's credentials in this milieu are impeccable. That just leaves the question of how much of this milieu the reader can take.

Of the eight stories included in this collection, Confidence, Fun Girls and TXTS are the most soul-draining, the ones most fully immersed in this world. Relief from moneyed meat-heads, applied hipsterism and strategic cleavage arrangement comes most fruitfully in Gentrification, in which a Toronto homeowner, named Tracy, who lives in a transitional district is forced to negotiate with unruly, confrontational tenants, one of whom may or may not be coming on to him. He commutes daily to the environmental alliance in Milton where he works, but he fantasizes about setting up a private photo studio in his home. He's dabbled in soft-core internet porn with his wife, but when she loses interest, he finds himself quietly cruising the dingier locales for new models. Gentrification is canny about middle-class city-dwellers' longing for that elusive liminal phase between a neighbourhood being seedy and unsafe and it's becoming sterile and pretentious. But the story's fairly straightforward social observations are pleasingly eclipsed by its more personal, psychological ones: Without allowing himself to be fully conscious of it, Tracy seeks to mitigate his burgeoning domesticity with baby-step transgressions into the territory of otherness – other races, other classes, perhaps other sexual preferences – right under his nose.

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Confidence features several protagonists in Tracy's position, men with women they cannot quite fathom and desires that cannot be satisfied within the confines of their long-term relationships. In Crazy, a man struggles with a hysterically jealous wife who must be hospitalized. He looks to bolster his masculinity in interactions with other women, but each of these women – a bartender, a nurse, a sex worker – leave him flaccid with their unfriendliness. In Raccoons, a man struggles to quiet a hysterically resentful ex-lover whose existence he's desperate to keep hidden from his wife. The man's attempts to satisfy his ex's demands become highly comic, particularly once he adopts his cheerful three-year-old son as an unknowing accomplice. It must be said that, along with its willingness to place its protagonist's transgressions on a spectrum shared by Rob Ford, the story also overstates its central metaphor: Those wild, belligerent titular raccoons invading the man's house are rather tidily analogous to the wild, belligerent ex-lover, a manifestation of the man's repressed urges, threatening to corrupt his domestic idyll.

To emphasize Smith's deployment of lying, cheating, sometimes misogynistic men is not to say that Smith is an apologist for such men. Though he usually writes in a very close third-person, Smith no more celebrates the protagonists of Gentrification, Crazy or Raccoons than he does the irritating "rising-star lawyer" or the painfully earnest bar-stool journal keeper (a stand-in for the young Smith?) in Confidence. The point is that he clearly knows something about these men, something arguably worth sharing. He knows something too about his fabulous fun girls and their coveted Italian boots, but women, for whatever reason, tend to inhabit the peripheries of these stories, passive-aggressively commenting on the men's actions through dating blogs or Twitter accounts that chronicle martital and maternal strain. It isn't that Smith can't or won't do women – his excellent 2004 novel Muriella Pent provides ample evidence of his abilities with female characters – but for whatever reason, this latest work sticks with the boys. Most of whom behave badly, some of whom wear suits, none of whom are terribly likable, all of whom are well drawn and perfectly, unnervingly identifiable. Take them or leave them. Or take some and leave others. It's a story collection; you can jump around.

José Teodoro is a Toronto-based critic and playwright.

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