>>Finally got around to it: February 2012
I tell him I have a mental illness.
“Do you hear voices?”
“No, but sometimes I feel a bit maladjusted.”
“Do you hallucinate?”
“I don’t think so. I once was convinced that the ozone layer was going to rupture and that everybody would die. I’ve since read that the ozone layer is starting to heal itself. So I feel better.”
“I hear voices,” he says, matter-of-factly. “If I can concentrate on my moves I can drown them out. do you know what I am talking about?”
“I think so.”
“Let’s play chess.”
A myriad of misunderstood individuals—some misanthropic, others magnanimous, all maladjusted, mistrustful misfits of varying degrees.
(I promise to not do that again.)
Kidding aside, there is a definite level of misanthropy running through the sixteen stories in Derek Hayes’ The Maladjusted. His characters—be they ESL teachers in Taipei, glory-day mid-twenties court hogs, or the office malcontent who snipes the backs of everyone (praise be to the glory of inter-office email)—are frayed wires. Passive extremes that assume the worst about the world around them—that bottle up emotions, constructing fabricated exchanges and, in the process, wrapping their insides up in knots. There’s a thick vein of humanity apparent in each of these stories, though it is the shadow parts of ourselves we’re happier to pretend don’t exist.
In “That’s Very Observant of You”, Melanie is incapable of confrontation, of simply telling another person, honestly, how she feels. Her neighbours are out to make her life miserable, parking in her spot without care or remorse; the attractive waiter at the Lucky Dragon restaurant insulted her with a simple remark—but it wasn’t so simple, it was cruel, and damaging, and driven into the heart of her. Only these things aren’t true. Melanie is fearful, socially inept, unable to express the simplest of thoughts or concerns to others because she is so spiteful towards herself.
James, protagonist of “In the Low Post”, is the inverse of Melanie—outgoing and asinine, and hanging out with a crop of kids half his age. In his mid-late twenties, James isn’t willing to give up the golden years ghost, holding to his sock-stuffing rank as master of the basketball court. He isn’t afraid to speak his mind; no, what James is quietly terrified of is that indescribable moment when the high school kids he calls his “soldiers” look to this aging office jockey and realize how sad and incapable of moving on he truly is. This is the moment he knows is coming—his transition from idol to cautionary tale.
In “Green Jerseys” and “Maybe You Should Get Back Here”, assumptions are life changers—decisions made about people, through fear, misunderstanding, or general ignorance that move their protagonists, by their will or the will of others, into entirely new positions. In both cases, unsettled and alone.
Hayes is yet another example of the strength of Canadian short story writing. There’s little wasted text in The Maladjusted. Hayes embraces the same punctuated absurdity that sold me on last year’s Up Up Up and The Odious Child. Similar to those two titles—especially Black’s The Odious Child—Hayes exhibits a compassionate contempt for each of his characters. They are parts of him, of people, family, and friends he has known, but damaged and, in some cases, with seemingly little hope for their futures.
Like all collections, some of the stories are stronger than others: “The Maladjusted”, “That’s Very Observant of You”, “In the Low Post”, “Maybe You Should Get Back There”, “Tom and Wilkie”, and “Shallowness” are the strongest in the collection, while “An Empty Tank of Gas”, “The Revisionist”, and “My Horoscope” are the unfortunate weak links. However, even the weaker stories in The Maladjusted still shine. This is a thoughtful, introspective collection that, from time to time, was a bit difficult to read—there’s a bit more of Melanie in me than I’d care to admit. Still, highly recommended.
*And as a production side-note, the header for “The Revisionist” is wrong in my copy. It is “Shallowness” instead. A small, niggling thing that watch out for, in case a reprint is in order down the road.