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New books by Kevin Hardcastle and Olive Senior exist on opposite ends of the spectrum

Debris

By Kevin Hardcastle

Biblioasis, 228 pages, $19.95

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The Pain Tree

By Olive Senior

Cormorant, 194 pages, $22.95

To begin to understand how Kevin Hardcastle's stylistic technique carries much of the force and effect in his stories, consider the way the author deploys compound words. Not everyday compounds, though he uses these as well (the word "everyday" itself appears in Hardcastle's first collection, though there is little else that is commonplace about the book's 11 stories). Rather, Hardcastle confronts his reader with enjambed syntax that feels as though it has been wrenched bodily out of his backwoods country setting. "They'd an early spring thaw," Hardcastle writes in The Rope, "and the sidewalks and streets in town were all sand and roadgrit." Or the opening line from the title story: "Come pale morning the old woman found a greycoat squirrel drifting dead in the swimming pool waters." Or this, from Old Man Marchuk: "They'd not heard the squelching of bootfalls in the thawmud near the barn."

The language Hardcastle employs throughout these stories is not precisely vernacular, and it only appears to reflect the cadence of natural speech. But compounds such as "roadgrit," "greycoat" and "thawmud" – along with the calculated use of contractions, the almost poetic construction "come pale morning," and the aggressive specificity of "squelching" – are precise and evocative, immediately locating a reader in a milieu without recourse to wasted verbiage or overwrought description. Hardcastle has internalized the lessons of Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway – writers who are frequently (and erroneously) praised for their fidelity to the rhythms of natural speech and dialect. In each case, what careless readers dismiss as naturalistic writing is in fact among the most highly stylized prose around. And the most difficult to pull off.

The hardest thing for a writer to achieve is to make the prose appear effortless. In his well-known rules for crafting fiction, Leonard sums up his approach in one handy axiom: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." Hardcastle's prose, to his credit, never sounds like writing. Instead, the author manages to plumb the psychological depths of a group of marginal characters by way of a minimal style that rigorously strips away anything extraneous, leaving only what is essential.

What is essential, in Hardcastle's vision, is raw and stinging and frequently drenched in violence. Shape of a Sitting Man begins with a revenge killing, and follows the gunman as he flees the scene of the crime. Bandits focuses on the exploits of a family of thieves who make their living crossing the frozen ice on motorized sleds to rob outpost liquor stores.

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That story ends with a scene in which a sled crashes through the ice; sympathetic readers will find in this an archetypal CanLit moment, others might well find it clichéd. What rescues the story, as always, is Hardcastle's language, which is direct and visceral, but tinged with empathy for his characters, all of whom strive for meaning while trapped in a universe that seems bent on denying it. "Everything in the world was evil," thinks one of the travelling salesmen in Hunted by Coyotes. "All the dogs were trying to kill us." As a motivating principle, this may seem frankly desperate; it is Hardcastle's talent as a stylist that pulls these stories out of the realm of despair and elevates them to something more vibrant and satisfying.

If Hardcastle's mode is one of minimalism, Olive Senior resides elsewhere on the stylistic spectrum. Her prose is more supple and ornate – the kind of writing that is often referred to as "lyrical" by critics looking for an easy descriptive shorthand. And it is true that Senior's writing does evince certain decorative flourishes: "Perhaps it was her obsession with bone structure, teeth, speech, jewellery, crystal, and fine china that made Mrs. F contemptuous about the things that were not fine, most particularly the life that she had escaped from." Or, elsewhere: "He is floating, floating up and up in the silent empty world with no sense of time until he sees emerging out of the blankness of the far distance a white mountain with deeply serrated edges."

The second sentence comes from Flying, the closing story in The Pain Tree, about a 26-year-old terminally ill man who returns to his Caribbean island home from Canada, putatively to die. The sentence appears in a dream sequence – a hoary stylistic device that is justified here in part by the man's sickness, which could be expected to cause hallucinations, and the story's flirtation with spiritualism and the supernatural (when he was young, the man was said to have the power to predict when someone would die).

Like Flying, most of the stories in The Pain Tree are set in Senior's native Jamaica; one exception is The Lollipop, which is located in Toronto, and tells the story of Katie, a young girl whose mother works multiple jobs ("She works in a hotel in the day but Katie isn't sure what kind of work she does at night"). After an uncomfortable encounter with the superintendent of the building where they live, Katie's mother punishes her for a supposed transgression; the misunderstanding between mother and daughter is thoughtfully handled and emotionally charged.

Lollipop is one of the better stories in the collection, in large part because it is one of the few that allows itself to engage directly in a dramatic situation. Too many of the other stories are related, often at second-hand, rather than dramatized. Per Elmore Leonard, there is much about The Pain Tree that sounds like writing. Senior's controlling hand is evident throughout, from punning titles (Boxed-in reverberates with both television and bauxite) to anodyne observations ("What is real is what you carry around inside of you"). Whereas Hardcastle offers his readers completely immersive experiences, Senior appears to be standing above her material, observing it from on high, and only rarely reaching down to get her hands dirty. There is technique aplenty in both these books; in Debris, it is hidden and subterranean, whereas in The Pain Tree it is on full display.

Steven W. Beattie’s column on short stories appears monthly.

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