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Reviewed here: Truth and Other Fictions, by Eva Tihanyi Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, by Stuart Ross This One's Going to Last Forever, by Nairne Holtz Selected Blackouts, by John Goldbach

Human identities are forged in the fires of narrative. Without our stories, we don't know who or where we are. The short story may be one of literature's most striking examples of the way narrative creates meaning and identity.

Thanks in part to judicious support from government bodies such as the Canada Council, and despite the complaints of right-wing ideologues who would prefer that all matters literary to be determined by the Draconian judgments of the cash register, Canada has a relatively healthy (if often imperilled) array of small literary magazines and serious small presses that provide a home for short fiction. The four collections under review here are all the products of that publicly supported literary world and, as different as they are one from another, taken together they make a compelling argument that the tax dollars that go into supporting Canadian writing are well spent.

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  • Truth and Other Fictions, by Eva Tihanyi, Inanna, 135 pages, $22.95

Eva Tihanyi, a widely published poet and instructor at Niagara College in Welland, Ont., was born in Budapest in 1956. She edits a small magazine, In Retro, and for many years she reviewed fiction for The National Post, the Toronto Star and Books in Canada. Truth and Other Fictions is her first book of stories, and it is an impressive and promising debut.

As the title implies, the stories in Truth and Other Fictions turn on the mutable and contested nature of truth, opening with Green is the Most Difficult Colour, a tale set in Picasso's Paris studios and narrated by one of the many young model/lovers the artist exploited over his long run as the city's resident genius/provocateur/dirty old man. The issue of the nature of reality and the ambiguous difficulties entailed in trying to represent it that are introduced in this story resonate through the remaining stories, tales that are set in various locales and decades up to the present. Quoting Picasso, the narrator says: " 'If there was a single truth, you couldn't make a hundred paintings of the same subject.' A hundred women, one man. A hundred truths. No truth at all. And you start with something. One woman, one man."

And so it goes throughout this wonderfully written collection of takes on the elusiveness of truth, followed next by No Ordinary Eyes, a dream-like story rendered in the difficult-to-master free indirect style. The Hungarian protagonist, Gyula Halasz (known as Brassaï), was a figure in Parisian arts bohemia between the wars, a friend of Henry Miller and the creator of haunting photographs of Paris by night. The story successfully provides a verbal equivalent of the shifting light and shadows of Halasz's photographic night world, and advances Tihanyi's sophisticated meditation on the nature of art and its complex and paradoxical relations to the truth, without abandoning attention to the particular and the concrete invoked by Picasso's betrayed lover in the opening story.

Body and Soul weaves glimpses of two compellingly powerful women, jazz great Billie Holiday and pioneer paleontologist Mary Leakey, into a prose blues for all women that breaks the reader's heart with its beauty.

Tihanyi is too artful a thinker and rigorous a creator to suggest that the tensions between art and truth can ever be unequivocally resolved, but her final story, Truth, uses the details of a complex set of friendships among women and the narrator's obsessive use of the Google search engine as ways to illuminate, if not settle, these vexing issues.

The author never sacrifices the particular human reality of her characters to the larger theoretical concerns she invokes, and the persuasiveness of her characterizations and the luminous quality of her visual descriptions of cityscapes and landscapes is strong enough to support her intellectual ambitions.

  • Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, by Stuart Ross, Freehand, 198 pages, $19.95

Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, by Toronto surrealist poet, novelist and magazine editor Stuart Ross, is also marked by high intellectual ambitions and an interest in paradox, all neatly signalled by the epigraph from Samuel Beckett that ends "happiness too, yes here was that too, unhappily." Ross's stories are clearly influenced by Beckett and seem set on a featureless plain with nameless characters who would be at home in Waiting for Godot. These are intelligent, spare narratives that gesture toward large questions of moral anesthesia and social numbness, and there are glints of savage humour that propel the narrative forward.

Me and the Pope is the collection's most effective story, mordantly funny and smart. Some readers may find Ross's stories too bleak and monochrome to be entirely successful, but he is a writer who has clearly already found a readership in Canada, and his fans will welcome this addition to his work. As a young man, according to his publisher's promotional material, Ross stood on Yonge Street with a placard reading, "Writer Going to Hell: Buy My Books." Good advice.

  • This One's Going to Last Forever, by Nairne Holtz, Insomniac, 226 pages, $19.95

Even more highly recommended to the adventurous book buyer are Nairne Holtz's This One's Going to Last Forever and John Goldbach's Selected Blackouts. While wildly different in setting and tone, with Holtz exploring love, loss and addiction among young lesbians in Montreal and Vancouver, and Goldbach setting his stories among hard-drinking young and more-or-less straight slackers in Ontario, with one surreal excursion to Cancun for variety, both collections are marked by impressively energetic prose, deft characterizations and perfectly persuasive scenes of erotic realism that convey all the complex heartbreak and adventure of sex, without a hint of prurience or narrative awkwardness, the twin demons that haunt most attempts to capture our sexual lives on the page.

  • Selected Blackouts, by John Goldbach, Insomniac, 172 pages, $19.95

In the Holtz collection, while the quality and energy of the narratives are so outstanding that it is hard to pick a favourite, the opening story, When Gay is the New Straight, a rollicking comedy of sexual adventure and misadventure featuring an Elvis impersonator, a drive-through marriage chapel and several star-crossed lovers, is a contender. Also strong is Are You Committed?, a profound and moving novella set among student activists at McGill University during the time of the horrific massacre of women at Montreal's École Polytechnique. Holtz is an author who can range from the erotic to the absurd to the tragic without a false note. She is clearly "a writer to watch," as Margaret Cannon observed in these pages in 2007.

Also worth watching is Goldbach, whose Selected Blackouts is a remarkable first book full of keenly observed characters and delightful comic invention. His stories feature a giant homicidal turkey, a character who gets out of bed hung over and practises writing suicide notes, and demented teen losers who burn away their wasted days and nights in dope- and alcohol-fuelled searches for oblivion.

Despite the unpromising material, Goldbach's touch is light and his narrative momentum is fierce. His prose and his well-constructed plots make his short stories into mini-novels, full of rich character development and the heart-searing pity that lies at the root of the best comedy. If, as I have suggested, we must rely on short fiction at least in part to help suggest who and where we are, Canadian readers are clearly well served by these four valuable new collections.

Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver writer and critic.

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