>>Finally got around to it: December 2015
They had discussed it for weeks, maybe even months—the insanity and illegality of the plan, the explanation, the cops, the evidence. The reasons not to do it. The pact. Cody kept saying over and over how he couldn’t live with himself anymore. He was done. The guilt about Joseph, his heartbreak over Astrid, the shame he woke up with every day. Hardly a breeze on the lake. The boat was barely moving, only a slight rocking on the water. He tied Cody’s hands and feet together like a calf’s at a rodeo. He should have gone to Canadian Tire and got new twine. The rope was bristly against his hands as he wove figure eights in and out of Cody’s legs, each end secured with a sailor’s knot.
“You’re a good—”
In one motion, Brent stuffed a sport sock deep into Cody’s mouth and straddled him. Cody’s eyes widened. Brent placed his thumbs together just below Cody’s Adam’s apple. Cody’s eyes closed. His lashes were long, like a girl’s, against his tanned face. His black hair was windswept and messy from driving with the windows down. Brent gripped his best friend’s neck like it was any other thing: a basketball, a can of paint, a plastic patio chair. He positioned his hands as if he was about to pop a cork and pressed his fingers against Cody’s throat. Not even a groan from behind the sock. The boat floated in the current’s natural flow. The sunlight glinted on the surface of the water and looked like a bag of new screws scattered over concrete. It was like some kind of backwards ritual. The opposite of baptism. Brent applied pressure, and Cody wriggled his feet at the bottom of the boat. He pressed harder. A breeze wafted through the birches as if to say, watching, watching.
Comprised of nine stories, Lana Pesch’s first collection of short fiction is a character-centric exploration of individuals at or near crossroads of one sort or another. For the most part these forks are emotionally driven, as people embark on new relationships or jettison old ones for the promise, or even the mere possibility, of something better. In a few of the stories, paths diverge in less obvious ways: a person re-examines what they thought they knew about themselves via the criminal actions of a childhood friend; a nephew is forced to accept the inevitable passing of a loved one as he navigates the schism between his mother and a medical specialist; and one young man has to figure out for himself what “brotherhood” truly means, and to decide whether or not to cross certain ethical boundaries as a result.
The opening story, “Moving Parts,” introduces us to Edie and Ditch, who catch sight of one another in the cashier’s line at a No Frills. Ditch proceeds to follow Edie to her car in order to ask her out. And while he’s the sort of person whose train of thought travels down the darker side of things, Edie’s narrative spirals into future possibilities of what their lives together might entail, should they hit it off. It’s a sweet if simple opener about expectations, fears, and the reality in taking a chance.
In “Deffer’s Last Dance,” a young financial mind’s uncle suffers a stroke. The narrative follows the main character through the crucial first forty-eight hours, which will determine whether or not his uncle lives, and what type of existence might follow. To help navigate this difficult time, the uncouth corpse of a homeless man befriends the distraught nephew and attempts to impart upon him a certain degree of afterlife wisdom.
“Brotherhood,” the strongest story in the collection, is a dark tale of childhood friends and the lengths one considers in order to honour a pact made years prior. The narrative follows Brent and Cody, two young men whose lives have remained somewhat intertwined all the way into adulthood. But Cody harbours many dark secrets, including an extraordinarily diminished sense of self and years of stockpiled guilt for the unintentional death of his younger brother. When Cody calls on Brent to obey the letter of their pact, if not the law, the resulting actions threaten to destroy whatever equilibrium exists in their lives, and the lives of their loved ones. It’s intimate and effective storytelling.
An interesting pairing with “Brotherhood,” “Natural Life” explores to striking effect the divergences in childhood friendships as one young woman working for a Fifth Estate-style documentary series travels south to visit a former friend whom she’d not seen in years, imprisoned now for her participation in the murder of an elderly woman during the attempted theft of a mobile home. While “Brotherhood” explored this sort of break in understanding from an immediately personal point of view, in “Natural Life” there already exists such a divide, and it’s the main character’s goal to understand its development, and to marry the memory of the child she knew with the criminal now sitting in front of her. While I prefer the narrative in “Brotherhood,” the writing in “Natural Life” is among the strongest in the collection, as Pesch delicately constructs the language of a woman experiencing an apparent lack of “self” and consequence, straddling the line of psychopathy.
One of my favourite moments in the entire collection, however, comes from a good but not especially great story. “Chewing Slower is a Sign of Mindfulness” follows a middle-aged woman on a bus trip from Kingston to Toronto as she reflects on her third failed marriage. Near the story’s end, she is out walking a dog to whom she is able to say everything she only wishes she could say to her destructive soon-to-be-ex-husband. And of course, the dog reacts adorably, as a dog would when addressed enthusiastically. It’s a small moment, but a very human one… despite one half of the conversation being canine. The emotional disarmament works exceedingly well.
But not every story in the collection is as strong as the entries already mentioned. “Habits of Creatures,” a series of vignettes coalescing around a Thanksgiving dinner during which a husband announces he’s leaving his wife for another man, is entertaining but light on character depth. Similarly, “The Rogues and Scoundrels Among Us,” a story masquerading as a letter of complaint about a company’s shoddy, brutally painful waxing strips, has a lot of fun with its premise but in the end offers little in the way of an emotional core.
It’s only the final two stories, though—“Faster Miles an Hour” and “Landing Area”—where I found myself rather disinterested in and detached from the narratives being told. The latter follows two women, an artist and a pilot, brought together after the pilot crashes her plane in the woods. The former… well I couldn’t tell you about that story if I had to as, truthfully, it simply didn’t resonate with me on any level.
If I had one additional complaint to lodge against this collection, it would be with the interior voice of the nephew at the centre of “Deffer’s Last Dance.” To be frank, much as I enjoyed the story for it’s slight supernatural twist, its tone was entirely off-putting. I’m speaking specifically about the nephew’s thoughts as he, while hearing about his uncle’s condition from a medical specialist, is also thinking rather extensively about his inappropriately timed hard-ons, not to mention what he’d like to do to the medical specialist currently discussing his uncle’s lack of options. Maybe it’s just me, but this all felt very out of place and inauthentic—it read as if written by someone imagining how a man must think based on the loosest and most stereotypical of ideas, and as a result almost destroyed my interest in said narrative. It was by the strength of its larger plot and character work that the story did not buckle beneath this unfortunate misstep in tone.
Despite the aforementioned issues and misgivings, I want to be clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection—enough that I read it in a single sitting. Pesch’s work isn’t especially flavourful or image heavy, but her command of character and voice is (mostly) quite strong. This is an enjoyable if not exceptional collection of work and I’d be curious to see what she does next.