Event Magazine Review - The Hour of Bad Decisions

The Gang's All Here: Seventeen Harrowing Tales from St. John's, Newfoundland
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Bachinsky

The Gang's All Here: Seventeen Harrowing Tales from St. John's, Newfoundland

Russell Wangersky's recent Giller-nominated The Hour of Bad Decisions is as thematically hard-hitting a first collection of short stories as one could hope for: murder, foul play, betrayal, adultery, divorce, mental illness, suicide - the gang's all here -delivered with an almost perverse sense of verisimilitude. So, be warned: Wangersky's vision of love and loss is about as sere and sorrowing as any winter night in St. John's, Newfoundland. If you're looking for a relaxing book to cozy up with in front of the fire, you'll want to think twice about snuggling up with Bad Decisions. Unless, of course, you're an arsonist and the fire happens to be your latest job.

Wangersky begins his colelction with just such a character, Roy Mead, a tough guy's tough guy, whose penchant for reprisal and eye for property leads him to murder-by-fire. In this story, 'Burning Foley's,' we are immediately drawn into a world of fear where the laws of the land have been replaced with the laws between men, between brothers - and the writing is impeccable. Bone-dry, terse, contained, the author sets the tone here for his entire collection: arresting. '"You won't be going to no cops."' says Roy to his brother. '"You won't be doin' nothing a'tall less I tell ya."'... He [shrugs, takes] out a cigarette, [lights] it carefully with his lighter, the flame flaring high in front of his face for a moment. "It's a long summer. You gotta sleep."'

Brother against brother, father against son, lovers torn apart or simply faded away, from this moment on, The Hour of Bad Decisions continues along a harrowing trajectory wherein the author repeatedly brings his characters up against some of life's most difficult, unfair situations. But Wangersky also has an unflinching eye for inner conflict and is at his best when interrogating interior places of pain. Take stories like 'Heartwood,' in which we peer in on the silent dissolution of a marriage as a husband, ironically, painstakingly, renovates the family home; or 'Big Shoes' in which the father on his deathbed feigns the inability to speak to his eldest and most loyal son. Both are exemplary of Wangersky's unfailing ability to cut straight to the heart of family matters. And the cuts are deep. They hurt. But those are the stories where Wangersky's insight shines: stories in which his characters know, intimately, the shapes of their desires and they are without realization or relief.

For Wangersky's characters, the worst is always yet to come. These are characters on the edge, steps from the yawning maw of loneliness, fear, rage and shame. Even when the author gives his characters an oh-so-slight moment of reprieve, the effect is claustrophobic. Consider this segment from 'The Latitude of Walls,' for example, where Kevin, a man whose marriage has just dissolved, finds momentary solace with a stranger:

The inside of her leg, right and yet wrong. Familiar, and yet strangely unfamiliar... The feel of her breath, battering urgent against his neck, her fingers grasping in the hair at the back of his head. The complexity of it, the roundness, the fullness, thick like the fat humid air of a steam-room, so that it was an effort just to breathe... Lost, and found, and hopelessly lost again, Kevin clamped both his hands over his mouth, trying to keep the sound from flying out.

Here, as throughout the collection, Wangersky's vision is stark, occasionally frightening, and often as transgressive as a meditation on suicide. Structurally, the stories are seamless; the language offers admirable poetic density and bracing dialogue. And the author is never at a loss when it comes to irony: one man renovates his home while his marriage falls apart, while another - whose decades-long marriage is ticking along nicely - finds himself unable to live without the ministration of a prostitute. A total absence of melodrama is required, and Wangersky delivers.

For those of you who've been following Russell Wangersky's non-fiction in journals and anthologies over the past few years, the timbre of The Hour of Bad Decisions will be of no surprise. You will be accustomed to his fascination with the incongruousness of intimacy slamming up against violence. But here, in this first collection of short stories, Wangersky shows he's well under control of his faculty as a writer of fiction as well. His superb voice, I am certain, is a voice that we will be hearing much of in the years to come. Listen for it.

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