The Right Book at the Right Time: Samuel Martin Reads Russell Wangersky's Whirl Away
You know that feeling when a book comes to you at just the right time, when you need it most? That’s how I feel about Russell Wangersky’s new story collection Whirl Away. It’s a book about people whose lives are in tailspin: people trying to see straight through the blinding vertigo of change.
I can relate to that. Over the next few months I will finish a three month writer residency on Fogo Island (off the north coast of Newfoundland), launch my first novel A Blessed Snarl, edit and defend my Ph.D. dissertation, pack up my home, and move from St. John’s to the States for a new job. I’m a creature of habit, so change rocks me like the great gusts of wind that shake my studio here on the hill up from Deep Bay.
Sometimes I think there’s just too much on the go: too many emails to answer, too many forms to fill out for moving companies, immigration, real estate, insurance, etc. But so far so good: I’m holding it all together. Or, rather, Samantha, my wife, is holding it all together and I’m hanging onto her organisational skills for dear life. Most days, I feel like Dennis Meany in Wangersky’s story “McNally’s Fair,” test-running a rickety, old rollercoaster that could collapse on its next run. Everything could skid off the road like the ambulance in “911” or the Susuki in “Sharp Corner.” I could be like little Kevin Rowe in “Echo,” so far inside my own imaginary world—working on the next novel—that I don’t realize everything is going to hell... until I hear sirens in the distance and realize home isn’t “home” anymore.
Life slings curve balls. It’s cliché but it’s true. Things change and sometimes change hurts, like that surprise punch to the face in “Look Away,” a blow that alters everything irrevocably.
It’s May here in Newfoundland, a season unto itself: halfway between Late Winter and Early Spring. It’s a time of year when anything can happen weather-wise. Trust me, I know. For the past two months, here on Fogo Island, I head up over the hill, no matter the weather, to my studio to write. In April, when I got here, you could walk over the frozen drifts, easy as anything. Two days later, after a bit of rain, I was up to my arse in slushy snow, struggling to make it up the hill, wanting the comfort and warmth of the studio’s woodstove.
“May isn’t always the friendliest month,” I think on stormy days, walking in the driving rain, remembering Paul Lambert, the rotund sports-drink marketer in “No Harm, No Foul,” who thought the exact same thing as he drove through a rainy night down a lonely Newfoundland highway, unaware that picking up that one hitchhiker would set his moral compass whirling.
No, May is not the friendliest month. It brings abrupt change—cold rain—that can leave you shocked as Michael Carter getting served divorce papers in “Family Law.” Change like that can leave your skin raw, walking through sleet gusting on high winds. Wangersky’s stories—all tautly told—remind me that change can end things, like Michael’s marriage, but it can also make you more sharply aware of what you have—what you’re lucky enough to hold dear—like a partner or spouse, as seen in the sensuous, final story.
All of the stories in Whirl Away struck me with the sudden violence of change, like a bolt to the base of the skull. But they also made me more keenly aware of my own gasping need for order, inclusion, community, and love.
When I finally have time to reflect on the madness of the next few months, I will think of Wangersky’s stories first—the flare they have been to me at this particular point in my life, like a beach fire at night, each story like a hand feeling the human curve, the gnarled knots, of each character’s life. All those lives sparking in my mind still, like so much driftwood “stripped by the salt and [burning] like rage... all fury and sheer flying-apart. Throw water onto one of [those] big beach fires,” try and douse the memory of these stories, “and even the rocks underneath [will] hiss and crack and explode in protest.”
These stories are that hot and wild, that unpredictable—that needful.
Samuel Martin is the author of This Ramshackle Tabernacle, which was a finalist for the 2010 BMO Winterset Award. Since that publication his short fiction, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have been published in journals in both Canada and the USA. A Blessed Snarl is his first novel.