—No-good whore, he said, and Winch felt a lump in his throat he couldn’t swallow, and he watched his own fist smack his dad in the jaw, an earthy sound, like someone tapping a piece of chalk to slate.
For a moment his dad didn’t react. He touched his chin. He glanced from car to woman to boy and then back at the house, his head tilted to the ground and his left eye squinting as though puzzled. Then he shot forward and those two massive pink hands hoisted Winch from the ground.
He landed hip-first, sideways. The impact spiked down his leg. His dad fell upon him, limbs methodical. Winch battered an arm aside, absorbed a half blow with his ribs, snugged his elbow over it. He smelled beer and deodorant and cigarettes, and Winch had never known his dad to smoke.
Once You Break a Knuckle is a collection of semi-linear linked short stories that take place in and around the Kootenay Valley in the British Columbia interior—specifically focussing on the town of Invermere. Focussing on a small group of families, the stories trace a line partially unstuck in time—while there is a certain sense of narrative progression to the stories, much like Jennifer Egan wrote in A Visit From the Goon Squad, the tales often break from their present tense and look deep into the past or far into the future, charting the mistakes and fights and transgressions of the many protagonists from several different perspectives. The result is a collection that feels claustrophobic in its setting—intended, I’m sure, to mark the limited personalities and opportunities provided by the very blue collar way of life—but expansive in its scope, offering a wide breadth of point-of-life experiences while allowing the reader to fill in certain chronological gaps on their own by interpreting events only partially alluded to.
A central conceit of oppressive masculinity gives a sharp edge to each story in the collection. Even when written from the third person, Wilson writes in the minds and dialects of the townsmen and women. His descriptions are minimalistic, often preferring to sharpen a tooth rather than coddle the reader with his metaphors. As such, the tone of the book rarely deviates, giving it a voice of unity that most linked collections lack, preferring instead to link specifically through plot or character arcs. A recurring bit of imagery that does play through most of the stories, to varying degrees of effectiveness, is the use of knuckles—as descriptors for facial features, as evidence of pain or failure, and as a creeping disturbance to the broken nature of one’s dreams or love lost.
The back-and-forth-through-time placement of the stories in the collection works most effectively when offering us glimpses into the lives of Will and Mitch, two young boys whom we see grow into adulthood and push apart from one another throughout the course of the book. However, the strongest, most abusive of the stories—the multi-part “Valley Echo”—also feels the most out of place within the overarching narrative, if it can be called such a thing. Though its tone and style remain in tight alignment with the rest of the book, the years as seen through its protagonist Winch’s eyes, and the confusion and abuse he suffers through his drug addled absentee mother and violent disaster of a father are engrossing enough as to separate this tale from the others as something that stands strong and on its own.
Wilson writes a string of effortlessly broken men, women, boys, and girls like a child pulling apart his G.I. Joes and toying with the elastics inside. People flit in and out of each other’s lives in perfunctory, sometimes shocking ways. Women are eyed as prizes to be won from the weaker men. And strength of will—or the perception thereof—rules all. Once You Break a Knuckle is a travelogue through personal tragedy, misery, and the often-crippling inability to see one’s possibilities beyond such a tiny corner of the world.