This first short fiction collection by a prominent Canadian journalist paints vivid word pictures of the world and on these canvasses superimposes people in all their human imperfections. Russell Wangersky’s characters, caught in a variety of human circumstances, make some outstandingly bad decisions. A labourer enjoys new-found popularity among his co-workers after losing several fingers in a work accident. So, in the face of returning invisibility, he makes a desperate decision. An elderly shut-in chooses to believe the lies of her own life and the world view she absorbs from talk radio. And finds the scapegoats that both those distortions of reality require. In these stories, some people seem to escape the consequences of their bad decisions, some people wind up being redeemed, and some are left to fates the reader can only imagine. In these stories, some people seem to escape the consequences of their bad decisions, some people wind up being redeemed, and some are left to fates the reader can only imagine. That we are capable of making decisions, doing more than acting instinctually, marks us as human among the living creatures of this world. Thus, Wangersky reminds us, even bad decisions can be cause for celebration, of what it means to be human.
Reviewed On: May 20, 2006
As editor-in-chief of The St. John's Telegram, Russell Wangersky writes a twice-weekly column on what he calls the "seen and unseen" aspects of the news. He is highly regarded for his writing, having won several National Newspaper Awards, among other honours. Here we get an introduction to Wangersky as fiction writer, free to play with the boundaries of his "seen and unseen," at times blending the two to stunning effect.
While the 17 stories in The Hour of Bad Decisions provide a literary tour of the Atlantic Coast, Wangersky is at his best when describing smaller landscapes: the internal workings of a chair factory; the smell and texture of different woods as a kitchen renovation lovingly progresses; even the simple but familiar contents of a drawer. Such smaller settings work to connect the reader with the vast interior landscapes of the characters and their relationships with others. The astute will pause at recognizing a son or brother, a wife, father, husband or self.
Working life often forms the frame upon which to hang a plot line, and Wangersky crosses the social terrain from doctor to assembly-line worker with a confidently shifting voice. His characters do make some really bad decisions, and how they decide to cope, or not cope (depending on how you choose to perceive their actions), provides the narrative push in each story. A firefighter maps sites of horror, hoping the visual representation will provide a sense of order to all that he has witnessed. An investment adviser gives up on sleep to prevent the recurrence of disturbing dreams. A husband takes sanctuary in a hot tub rather than face his unhappy family.
The stories portray just about every emotion: terrible loss and profound love, loneliness, rage and disappointment, woven with thoughts so intimate and well considered that one almost feels embarrassed reading them. The strength of the writing is such that never once does it approach sentimental, though the subject matter could lead a less skilful writer down that path: An aging father turns to a shifty con for the care and company that his sons won't provide; a mother lives a lie rather than confront a son over an ugly truth; husbands grieve dead wives or wives lost in other ways.
Indeed, some of the strongest stories tell of disintegrating marriages, and Wangersky subtly suggests dual responsibility, but never blame. He is acutely aware of human weakness and the specialties of both sexes. Words fail his men more often than not, even when they know it's words that will save them.
In No Apologies for Weather, a man braces for a domestic argument as he spots the benign signs of a big storm brewing. Towels have been neatly folded; the closet organized. Wangersky blends the weather metaphor adeptly, taking advantage of his Atlantic setting. His character has mentioned a job offer in Ottawa and his wife accuses him of not considering her life.
"It's not that you've chosen to do it, just that it's an active consideration that makes you feel better, that you can try on like new clothes. It's exquisite to roll around in the scent of being wanted….It's a fantasy, he wanted to say, unsure of how to get that concept out. Five occasional minutes of empty dreaming. A fantasy where everything's new, and all your problems just disappear. But he didn't have a chance to speak the words."
A passage in Dealing with Determinism further demonstrates Wangersky's insight into the complicated communication between men and women: "Desperate and determined, trying to prove he was exactly the person he always had been, yet frantic about whether or not he would be able to pull if off. It was, in the end, a riveting combination. When it was over, he shuddered violently and fell back against the bed….Then, fully awake, Helen finally spoke. Even, slow words, each one shaped carefully, each one dropped like a pebble. 'Now,' pulling the sheet back up over her breasts, 'what exactly is it that you're trying to tell me?'"
As a result of such examples, I knew Wangersky was capable of crawling inside the head of a woman. I hoped for a story from a wife's perspective, not out of preference, nor for a sense of balance, but out of pure curiosity to see what he might come up with. He delivers in the second to last story, Better Than This. It is beautifully crafted, displaying the full force of discontent in the gentlest fashion.
These are mature, deeply satisfying stories in that, despite all manner of intriguing avoidance techniques, the characters never try to escape responsibility for their bad decisions. They may, at times, try to escape the consequences of their actions, yet they clearly own them. In an age of so much "not my fault," it is always refreshing to be in the company of such people, real or imagined.
Sarah Dearing has published two novels and recently finished a third. When he sees her carrying the basket of fresh fruit and vegetables, he allows a smile brimming over like cream leaking from a butter churn. “We stay here? You like it here?”
“Yes, I like very much.” It will do just fine until the war is over and she can take her husband home to Gotland. She wants her mother with her when the child is born. Surely, an armistice will be declared soon. It’s almost winter.
But now, she must feed them all, this new family.
As written earlier, the novel has two distinct overarching narratives, with smaller, sub-narratives within the larger ones. Unfortunately, this dichotomy seems to inhibit Barclay’s writing style(s); at several turns, the writing style in the chapters on twenty-first century Russia seems fractured. Signe’s modern tale is considerably weaker than the ones focusing on Lena, Pytor and Maryushka. Barclay does not capture more than a smidgen of the emotion and passion that characterizes the historical parts of the book. Signe’s trip to Russia, holding such promise from the outset, never moves beyond anything more than a middling travelogue. Part of it may be that such a small portion of the book deals with the contemporary that as a reader, I never really identified with the older Signe or the mysterious Russian guide, Kostya. I would also argue that Barclay could have spent even more time developing Lena’s character. Lena really steals the novel from my reading and I would have enjoyed much more from Barclay regarding Lena’s earliest years in Sweden. Crafting the novel as purely historical might have allowed her to explore more of the past without trying to wedge Signe’s modern story into the novel.
Despite these drawbacks, I would recommend The Forest Horses to most readers. I think that older readers will enjoy the book the most. Teenaged readers, unless very well-read and students of Russian history, will not be compelled to finish the book in most cases. While The Forest Horses never reaches a full gallop, the ride is still worth the time and effort.