Women's Post Review - The Hour of Bad Decisions
Regular guy makes good decisions
Reviewed by: Women's Post
I was aware of Russell Wangersky's literary CV when I began his collection of short stories: I knew he'd received several National Magazine Awards for his articles in the St. John's Telegram, where he serves as editor-in-chief. I also knew that he'd won three Creative Non-fiction contests in prestigious literary journals. And so I opened The Hour of Bad Decisions, his first collection of fiction, expecting an accomplished book whose journalistic roots were unintentionally exposed. I was not expecting this: the most impressive piece of Canadian fiction I've read all year.
Wangersky's stories centre around 'regular' guys, often in mid-life, often dealing with the aftermath - or impending end - of long-term relationships. The descriptions are rich but never indulgent- every detail serves the story, creating the mood or establishing the pace. In most of the stories, the reader is taken inside the man's mind as he works and wonders and sometimes falls apart.
In 'On Call,' an emergency room doctor treats a delusional patient in a small exam room. The mood is creepy and claustrophobic. A knife is introduced in the first sentence, a whiff of doubt, reality versus delusion, is introduced in the last. In 'Hot Tub,' a man ruminates on the disintegration of his marriage as he sits, too long, in the hot tub at a resort. The couple's alienation from each other is portrayed deftly: Several times the man watches his wife walk away, briskly, while he remains in the tub, waterlogged and heavy-limbed. Wangersky writes, 'He could tell by each line of her body, by the precise straight swing of her arms, by the way she was holding her shoulders, that she was beyond furious. That she was so angry that she was depending on the rigidity of her body to maintain control over her temper.'
My favourite piece is 'Mapping.' Here, a firefighter recalls the scene of an accident: 'He could see bone winking white through her scalp, and the washed-sky blue of her eyes. The rest of her face was scarlet with blood, and lit bright by the headlights of his truck.' Wangersky uses this accident as the backbone of a piece about the firefighter's life: how his world is closing-in, defined by the mental map of all the disasters he's witnessed while his relationship quietly dies.
Too many contemporary fiction writers are happy to explore plot and character only - others seem to have little control over their own themes. Wangersky goes beyond the basics (which he does exceedingly well) into the language itself. A bathtub in a semi-detached house is a 'porcelain parabolic ear' a prostitute laughs at a man in a way that 'gives you hiccups or makes you want to throw up' a carpenter's wood smelled 'foreign and bitter, a tang that spoke to him of wet, fresh green trees, like a memory of that first feral smell of spring.'
Wangersky's words resonate on various levels, creating a complex atmosphere in these short pieces. And even if the reader isn't always conscious of all those levels of resonance, she will be affected by them: the rhythm and sound of the language give this book a undeniable muscularity that most fiction lacks. The Hour of Bad Decisions deserves a wide audience, and some national recognition as well: it's time Wangersky adds some fiction awards to those non-fiction prizes he's scooped up already. Marianne Apostolides is the Books editor of The Women's Post.