"Hitchhiking no longer seems reasonable," reflects Kate, a middle-aged mother in one of the tales gathered together in Nancy Jo Cullen's debut short story collection, Canary. In her constricted and sedentary maturity, Kate's own youthful days thumbing for rides in France and Spain seem like "some fantasy past" that she can't tell her kids about. Yet as with so many of Cullen's characters, Kate learns that the lure of the open highway is a temptation that is never outgrown.
One way or another all of Cullen's characters are hitchhikers. Most of them live somewhere between the Pacific Ocean and Winnipeg, but they are never quite settled. If not in motion physically, they're often spiritually and sexually mobile, itching to leave stifling relationships or hook up with someone new, fleeing from smothering families or trying to rebuild after a shattering break-up, torn between the conflicting claims of religion and the body.
Domineering and difficult mothers are a recurring theme and a major source of flight. The tawdry lower middle-class milieu of these stories, heavy with drinking and marital strife, calls to mind Raymond Carver, but Cullen's stories have an open-ended resiliency very different than the sombre American master.
Northrop Frye once described Byron and D.H. Lawrence as "poets of savage pilgrimage" who used "a variety of scenes and places to intensify a subjective attitude." Cullen's people are wayfarers of sullen pilgrimage, with gas stations and Tim Hortons serving as their version of Greece and Mexico.
A taken-for-granted sexual transiency is the most strikingly contemporary feature of these stories; if it were written a decade ago the fact that many of the characters are gay, lesbian or bisexual would be seen as a political statement. But in Canary the sexuality of the characters doesn't define their identity, and is in fact often as transitory and up-for-grabs as every other aspect of their unsettled lives. The quietly radical assumption implicit in the book is that sex isn't a matter of fixed identity but of opportunistic action.
When I was first making my way through the stories, I was a bit concerned that Cullen's prose was a bit too blandly serviceable, sometimes slackening into cliché. Thus a character is described as "cool as a cucumber" but becomes so surprised "you could knock him over with a feather."
But in story after story Cullen won me over. Their people and situations rang close to life, and I came to see that the Cullen was using clichés in the same manner as Joyce in Dubliners, not lazily but as a as a way of accurately defining the cultural scripts her subjects follow.
The major concern with this stellar book is not its quality but its potential audience. The short story is Canada's preeminent narrative form. From Mavis Gallant to Cullen there have been a host of talented writers who have found in the liberating constraints of the story the ideal vehicle for catching the pulse of our current moment. Houdini performed his magic in boxes so tight he could barely move; our writers unleash their wonders in twenty pages or less.
Yet story collections are notoriously poor sellers, treated like toxin by big publishers and relegated to spunky independent houses like Biblioasis. Like other talented writers before her, Cullen will win acclaim with this book – she's already one of seven Canadians nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.
But she will also start getting pressure to publish a novel. Cullen deserves all the acclaim she's going to receive, but it's worth noting that the quality that makes these stories special is that they aren't novels but rather small narrative treks: hitchhike rides that pick us up, tell us their secrets, drop us off and bid goodbye.
Jeet Heer's new book, In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly's Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman, will be published this fall.
Editor's note: A previous online version of this review identified the author as "Mary Jo Cullen" in the headline. The error has been fixed.