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review: fiction

Russell Wangersky

Like Cheever or Munro, Russell Wangersky delves stealthily into disquieting corners of the domestic sphere, his stories dissecting lives when they are fracturing, lives at stress points, lives much like the roller coaster at the centre of McNally's Fair, an exciting and popular ride gleaming with fresh paint, but about to collapse from hidden rust and broken bolts. Such parallels are his métier and meat as a stylist. Water stains on a wall mirror flaws in the soul (daub on some paint and get rid of the place), and a meal at a diner resembles a relationship, "resolute about not living up to its promise."

A similarly lyrical parallel elevates Family Law, a story of a troubled lawyer in St. John's: "I woke up and realized that even the light outside had changed some time ago, and I suddenly believed that all the books had been lying about love, that it wasn't really endless and perfect and available after all. I also realized that I'd actually known this for a while, although I couldn't pick out the exact day when I'd discovered it. It was like when autumn comes, when there's still sunlight, but it doesn't have the same kind of warmth on your skin anymore."

Russell Wangersky, a newspaperman by day, is deft at using a variety of occupations and trades in his stories: lawyers in love, a carpenter who dies leaving a mystery, and paramedics tending The Gasper, a man prone to panic attacks and calling ambulances too often. And, of course, fire fighters, as seen in his book, Burning Down the House, which won the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and the Edna Staebler Award.

Fire fighters figure in Sharp Corner, a story that highlights Russell Wangersky's strengths as a writer. At parties a man recounts the three cars that have crashed on his scarred lawn and, as his irritated wife points out, he enjoys it too much, "all those horrible things that happened to other people." Like a writer, the man works over his deadly material (a Suzuki in air completes "three clean, tight and acrobatic rotations"), and he needs material, needs to feed the goat, as Norman Mailer put it.

Perhaps also like a writer, the divorce lawyer in Family Law admits to making a living off other people's misery. The lawyer tries to minimize the emotional and financial cost for his clients, but echoes Bleak House when he cites an Ontario case where a couple's savings are devoured by bitterness and legal fees. In a quietly excellent scene, a process server serves papers on the lawyer who has sent out the same papers so many times. "Actually, Mike, I've got something for you." It's a great moment.

With sympathy for both males and females, Whirl Away explores romance, disillusionment, money worries, infidelity, layoffs and tipping points, quiet conflicts like butter simmering on a stove and about to angrily turn colour and burn.

As in his recent novel The Glass Harmonica, winner of the Winterset Award, Russell Wangersky is good at delineating the character of St John's, the rival neighbourhoods and bright temperamental houses and a reassuring view from the kitchen sink: "The rooflines weren't straight, but they sagged in the same places every single morning and evening, and he found a particular comfort in that."

Some of these city stories are linked (Mary is the mistress in Family Law and she tries to fix up her house in Open Arms) and some stories would smoothly fit The Glass Harmonica, perhaps excised from that impressive novel of St John's. There is the same feel to some of the bickering characters "running from the latest mistake," the same feel to the restless addresses and wet streets that lead to the harbour's orange pier lights and offshore supply boats, and of course the famous Newfoundland weather, wind and fog and sleet and sodden snow that wipes out feeble human attempts at footprints and tire tracks. Russell Wangersky is not from The Rock, but in his writing he has made it his world.

Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of 19 Knives, My White Planet and the hockey novel Salvage King Ya! He teaches at the University of New Brunswick.