- Title: Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club
- Author: Megan Gail Coles
- Genre: Fiction
- Publisher: House of Anansi
- Pages: 432
Near the end of playwright Megan Gail Coles’s debut novel there is a line that perfectly captures the twisted affair at the story’s heart: “John loves Iris best when she is sick and bleeding." Restaurateur John Fisher – whose upscale restaurant in downtown St. John’s, the Hazel, actually belongs to his wife – is not a good person. At the beginning of Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club you might think he’s a likeable rogue. At the end, you might think differently.
Some people get off on other people’s pain. Coles keeps her sights on these ordinary sadists, but importantly, what she does not do is take the forces of racism and rural poverty, homophobia and pervasive misogyny that wash her characters onto the doorstep of the Hazel and turn it into trauma porn.
This is a fine balance, since what recommends this novel most is the way its author stays with her characters’ hurt, how she holds it without reverence but understands how those wounds can motivate like nothing else.
How do you keep a story moving? It’s an important question for a 400-page novel, maybe more so when the narrative engine is the interaction between its dozen or so characters. Then the question becomes: Why do people do the things they do?
Small Game Hunting takes place over a single day – Valentine’s – which, in February, is predictably inclement. There’s another storm brewing inside the restaurant, which John outwardly seems to command since he’s the famous chef, although it’s his wife George’s money that bought the place. All the while, John is having an affair with Iris, one of his wait staff, although this is putting it nicer than John deserves. John is toying with Iris because he can, because sexually manipulating a parade of young women is what he does, and also because John has possibly forgotten how to not tell lies.
Character isn’t fate and people are responsible for their decisions. It’s that so many relish the opportunity to make bad ones that propels this novel forward and keeps it from going slack.
The best people in Small Game Hunting – the ones who love easily, who are shocked by the intensity of their co-workers’ self-harm, the ones who could not be said to belong to the local coward gun club – are minor onlookers despite their best efforts.
Powering this narrative is the hurt. Olive, a neighbour of Iris’s, is the greatest victim of circumstance and is the target of the worst violence in the novel. She thinks, near the end of the book: “No one says it is okay to feel hurt. No one says anything. Everyone just goes on living. We all go on living until we lose more of each other. And then we are made lesser.”
Small Game Hunting’s publisher describes this book as Newfoundland Gothic, which on consideration seems apt, so long as you understand that horror needn’t be outlandish. The existence of this suffering should not be unfamiliar to you.
What may surprise is Megan Gail Coles’s humour, a sharp, wry intelligence that cuts all ways in its commentary.
Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club is a dark, taut, funny novel that feels for its characters’ pain while remaining caustic toward the enablers and the kinds of violence that polite society allows.
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