St. John's Telegram Review - The Hour of Bad Decisions

St. John's Telegram
Reviewed by: Joan Sullivan

The Hour of Bad Decisions, a short-story collection, is Russell Wangersky's debut as a fiction writer, and it is superb. The writing is accomplished, even haunting. The plots of the 17 stories range from a series of mysterious, brutal arson fires in the small Southern Shore community of Cuslett, to a desperate retreat in a Banff resort, to a forlorn real-estate trek throughout St. John's. The themes run through marital discord and disintegration (a reoccurring motif), the drive of men who start trouble and the despair of men who try to stop it, emotional stasis (one character spends the entire story in a hot tub) and physical momentum (another launches himself into continent-wide flight to escape his vicious, searing nightmares).

The voice switches from first to the third person, and, with one exception, is always male. But there is a huge variety in the central character. For one thing, their class and occupations are widely different. There's a white-collar, upwardly mobile employee struck with professional ennui, an emergency-room doctor too tired to pick up on a disturbed patient's danger signals, a volunteer firefighter tormented by the scenes and outcomes of accidents, an assembly-line worker in a chair factory who suffers a disfiguring, fortuitous accident, and a widower who's exchanged his home for an anonymous motel room, armed with a bottle of sleeping pills he tricked his doctor into prescribing, each capsule with the narcotic heft to drop a Clydesdale. But they are linked by melancholy. Each story is threaded with a specific anguish. The characters' marriages have failed, or they fear they will. Their wives are angry with them. They don't have enough good friends. They need a family to look after.

The title refers to the hour of 2 a.m., when at least two characters are woken in the night and go on to make bad decisions. This time is also called The Hour of the Wolf (by the Scandinavians, or some equally cheerful northern people), and, really, all choices made then run ill. The emotional tensions the characters endure are mirrored by a tautness to the prose. Kevin, in 'The Latitude of Walls,' recalls an aborted contretemps with his wife: 'It was, he thought, an argument they used to find time to have. But now they just walked away, positions entrenched.' Later, he thinks: 'Leaving became necessity, the rest of his world had been out of his control, taken over by the Coriolois effect, spinning quick and clockwise, straight down the drain. Sometimes, that's exactly what Kevin blamed it all on: Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis, the nineteenth-century scientist whose examinations of Newton's laws of motion of bodies explained both cyclones and the spinning whirlpool disappearance of bathwater.' And, throughout the stories, the descriptions are apt and calibrated. A character on a late-night, winter walk notices the ' shin-high, powdery snow, his footprints did not so much fill in as create their own forgiving, erasing avalanches.' Another, watching a family cavort by a swimming pool, sees '(t)hree dark-haired kids like cut-out versions of the same person at different ages. '

In 'Bowling Night,' a field is sculpted when 'small touches of wind would run across the green wheat below, turning the heads of the wheat and leaving long silver fingerprints that vanished as the plants straightened up again when the wind moved away.' Wangersky also uses words like 'juddered,' displaying a precision and invention with language. This is writing to be savoured. The openings and endings of the stories are often unexpected and ambiguous. A man walks away from a burning car, or has an elliptical conversation with his St. John's rowhouse neighbour. The arc of each piece feels carefully honed, with nothing superfluous, no jangling extras or distracting tangents. Although the primary voice is usually masculine, the women in the pieces are not one-dimensional. They are, variously, comforting, irked, seductive, a little worn at the edges, maternal, insane. The locations, which shift from St. John's to rural Nova Scotia to Toronto and beyond, are tellingly portrayed.

One criticism is that several of the characters share the surname Hennessey, but their family link (if any) is never revealed. Perhaps Wangersky just likes the name, which is an excellent one, of course, but I did expect some payoff. But that is a very minor quibble for what is an emotionally potent, unerring and deftly crafted work.Joan Sullivan is a writer and theatre director living in St. John's.

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