The best comes last in Steven Mayoff's debut collection. At nearly 60 pages, the book's title story has the breadth of a novella, gradually revealing the tortuous history of a Prairie family.
On scorching July day at a dusty Alberta truck stop, Mavis Jean, a tough and sinewy drifter and intermittent hired hand, hops from the passenger seat of an 18-wheeler to await what she hopes is the next and final lift on a journey home to her ailing father. Not much is moving in the lot, but she does connect with a few idle truckers who know of her dad's condition and offer some sympathy. Moving to sit under a tree, she shares a scrap of shade with a sunburned young hitchhiker who's on a personal pilgrimage to the site of some bizarre cattle mutilations.
- Fatted Calf Blues, by Steven Mayoff, Turnstone, 152 pages, $19
Cut to home. Tended by his sister, Mavis Jean's dad is half-paralyzed and spends his days on the porch of his Drumheller farmhouse, deftly rolling and smoking cigarettes with his one good hand. Once a carnival sharpshooter, he settled into a highway trucker's career until felled by illness. We learn that Mavis Jean hasn't been home in five years, her extended absence compelled by the shame of abandoning her dad after the first in a series of strokes.
Mayoff's set-up is deceptively conventional, priming us for a familiar journey: guilt, remorse, reconciliation. The wild card is the strange kid with the affinity for carved-up cattle. The story's pleasures come from the mix of sharply defined eccentric characters and the suspenseful uncovering of family demons. When we finally witness the human damage close-up, the wounds quickly - if not quite convincingly - shift from figurative to literal. The abrupt gunplay feels contrived, but Mayoff's teasing flirtation with redemption, and refusal to succumb, gets us back on track. The closing strands remain untied, yet they seal the tale's success.
Other stories, much shorter, sometimes gather to a similar, open-ended, final impact. One presents a despairing man on a lonely beach. His failure to forgive is killing him. We see the potential end of the black tunnel he's in, wondering if he can see it as clearly.
A two-page tale pulls us into the mind and slithering body of a 10-year-old sneaking on his belly through pitch-dark suburban backyards. AWOL, doing typical kid things, he has also suffered a loss. With admirable compression, the story integrates innocence, sensuality and sorrow.
Others among the briefer tales feel like exercises: promising ideas not fully explored. You see a strong imagination at work, but it's often the "at work" that's most conspicuous. A struggling actor moonlights as a stripper, convincing herself it's temporary, hoping her agent doesn't find out. A crazed lover with an elaborately literary inner voice confronts his ex one stormy night, pulls out a gun and kills himself before her eyes. A young couple, both aspiring songwriters, spar over a poetic love note left pinned to their door, triggering the final unravelling of their faded love. Though the message (passion fuels art, complicates life) is overly explicit, feisty dialogue and engaging character work help to carry the piece.
Over all, Mayoff tends to be too eager to underscore meanings the reader has already grasped, sometimes punching up climactic moments with florid lyricism. A story set on a seaside cliff top ends with the sea air "charged ... by butchery and rebirth, leaving only this incarnation of solitude that rises from the frenzied dance of the waves below." Mayoff shines best when he exits the page, when display gives way to a purer vision behind the wordplay.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.