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Title
Bull Head
Author
John Vigna
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Arsenal Pulp
Pages
201
Price
$15.95
Year
2012

Slightly over a 200km drive southeast from Invermere—an isolated settlement in which, according to the cautionary stories of D.W. Wilson's Once You Break a Knuckle, the natural condition of mankind is still solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish (though not necessarily short)—stands Fernie (pop. 5,200), a coal mining town in BC's Elk Valley that has lately gained favour for proximity to a ski resort.

    The eight stories of Bull Head, John Vigna's debut collection, are set in a place roughly equivalent to Fernie. Like London-based Wilson, Vancouver resident Vigna's country-noir vision of rural existence emphasizes dire violent bleakness. Here, apparently, opportunities are few and far between, happiness rarer than platinum (and quickly lost), and anesthetizing alcohol the widely swallowed poison of choice. Though there's less manly rifle-firing and macho posturing in Vigna's fictionalized Fernie, the town's misery level suggests a twin separated at birth from Wilson's Invermere.

Within the narrow purview he has chosen, Vigna showcases an aptly spare style and an impressive willingness to explore the fraught relationships of guys deeply flummoxed, or else defeated, by the wintery meanness of getting by in the valley.

Vigna's lost souls have typically fallen into sad routines within a deep rut; climbing out isn't a sure bet. In Short Haul, overweight logging-truck driver Lonnie spends evenings drinking at a stripper bar with his buddy Ricky (both men mistake bills stuffed into cleavage for intimacy) while avoiding his wife's fists and a crumbled marriage. Drunk and self-loathing and needing to bolster his flagging masculinity, he eventually shoots a deer feeding in a parking lot.

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Opening with "Travis insists that I have another drink," South Country tracks world-weary Billy's awful relations with women and flashes back on his sexual assault by a local sociopath. Gas Bar's Dwight, whose wife and children died in a car accident, crushes a beer can with his fist before starting "another weekend of beer and bourbon and TV, hunkered down in his room, then another five-day shift with the same crew, the same twelve-hour days." Encountering a bedraggled young prostitute, he offers her money, fleeting companionship and advice. When she asks, "And then what?" his reply ("You do what anyone else does. You carry on") provides only cold comfort.

Closing the collection, harrowing Pit Bulls portrays divorced Brian's dour environment ("Brownness everywhere wanting to be green, ready to grow after a long, punishing winter of shovelling rooftops and scraping by) and a so-called life that alternates between drinking, sleeping in a car, nursing hangovers and breeding pit bulls for fighting. Shocking, the murderous conclusion also seems fated.

Bull Head Mountain casts a literal shadow in the amusing title story. Vigna offsets the gloomy setting ("Although he had lived here all his life, the land had not softened; it was as hostile as the day he was born") with flashes of humour in a tale about a bitter local widower's unresolved battle with immigrant neighbours over beetle-infested trees.

"This is hell," a novice tree planter tells her friend in Cutblock, arguably the collection's least despairing story. Eventually she falls for a married man, and while remaining skeptical about the familiar promise of leaving his wife, fantasizes about their separate futures.

The outstanding strengths of Bull Head relate to Vigna's style and voice. The relentless focus on oppressive environments and social norms, though, may raise questions about the collection's value as a realist depiction of any rural actuality.

Brett Josef Grubisic was born in Rossland, B.C. (pop. 3,500), a few hours west of Fernie. He teaches at the University of British Columbia.

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