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September Books

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Issue: 63 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: short fiction, non-fiction

September 22, 2009

September Books

Short stories by Goldbach, humour by Leiren-Young

by Shane Patrick Murphy, Megan Stewart

Selected Blackouts
John Goldbach
Insomniac Press: Toronto, 2009

Sometimes realism can be too realistic. Without narrative flare or insight from the author, superficial realism can spiral around banalities that make the life of an amateur literary critic look like an atomic bomb of excitement.

John Goldbach occasionally gets trapped by the boredom and frustration of his characters in Selected Blackouts, his debut collection of short fiction. These stories rapidly shift from exuberant experiments to monotonous dialogues with little compromise between the two. It’s a shame to see a few drawn out and directionless stories deter from otherwise brilliant moments scattered throughout this collection.

Luckily, Goldbach’s humour often shines in original narrative structures and bleak subject matter. “How Much Do They Know?” is the inner-monologue of a character reunited with some long-time friends at a Christmas party. It would take timelines and diagrams to unravel the years of cheating, jealousy, and backstabbing outlined in this short story. But the essential point is the narrator knows several secrets about each person around the table. In listing his own collection of secrets, he comes to realize each friend likely holds an equal number of unspoken stories about himself and the others. The story’s conclusion is a straightforward and inevitable comment on friendship itself: “I really don’t understand why we tolerate each other.” The idea is familiar to most close-knit friends, but Goldbach infuses this everyday observation with his own insights and humour, which is what realism should set out to do.

Goldbach has a talent for unveiling the psychological tensions that awkwardly bind people together, but one story in particular, “Easter Weekend,” simply gets bogged down in tiring exchanges between characters who can’t express themselves. Here Goldbach takes a security-camera view, recording objective words and actions in colourless prose. There is some logic in presenting the teenage stock-characters in their own light: They repeat cliches, they interrupt each other, and they leave the most important parts unsaid. But too often Goldbach gives us only these mumblings while neglecting the anxieties brewing in the undercurrents. Unfortunately, a realistic depiction of a boring conversation makes for really boring reading. Nevertheless, these somewhat lifeless dialogues find their balance in Goldbach’s shorter, punchier, and more endearing pieces.

—Shane Patrick Murphy

Never Shoot A Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo
Mark Leiren-Young
Heritage House: Victoria, 2008

A cub reporter haphazardly lands himself at a small-town community paper and over-uses the adjective venerable as if the irony were original.

Naturally, 22-year-old Mark Leiren-Young has a lot to gain from his months at the Williams Lake Tribune in the early 1980s and, 25 years later, he introduces the memoir Never Shoot a Stampede Queen with the goal of staying true to his younger self.

Stampede Queen won a Leackock Award for humour, but much of the prose struck me as condescending and aloof—not the insight and wit I hoped for. Maybe it’s the immature narrator’s persistent indelicate stereotyping after he arrives in the Cariboo, a ranching region in the central interior of British Columbia. But in time he dismantles many of his own caricatures and begins to write with pathos, maturity and even humour.

The narrator laments, upon arriving in Williams Lake, population not very much, “It was my worst nightmare. I was about to start work as a newspaper reporter in a town with no news.”

By the time he realizes how wrong he is, Leiren-Young is on his way back to Vancouver and restless to finish the profile of a local judge, an investigative piece on bigoted landlords, and the series on the town’s crime rate he committed to and was genuinely keen to report. He proves himself a very good reporter with natural storytelling instincts and a common touch.

Despite unfair leaps and character assumptions, Leiren-Young nails the reality of community reporting: an epic 24 news briefs and stories in one day; typing merely to fill column inches; covering issues of poverty, housing, and First Nation rights that merit national attention; wages that have barely risen in two decades; vicarious traumatization in the criminal courts; and the surprise of finding humanity where it’s least expected.

The strength of this collection of non-fiction stories is voice and storytelling. When he’s not making a Clint Eastwood comparison, Leiren-Young shares fantastic anecdotes worthy of broad Canadian attention. We hear the narrator grow up through language and professionalism—he becomes a better journalist and is progressively more open-minded. His writing becomes increasingly nuanced, and it seems as if Leiren-Young eventually sees past the cliches to connect with a more honest portrayal of the Cariboo.

—Megan Stewart

Megan Stewart is an independent journalist in Vancouver, where she is completing her graduate degree at the University of British Columbia. Shane Patrick Murphy is the former executive editor of the McGill Law Journal. He is slowly getting around to writing his first novel, Still I Dream of Grandeur.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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