It’s the Journey, Not the Arrival

Journey Prize Stories 18

McClelland and Stewart
263 pages, $17.99

There’s a French expression, bien dans sa peau, that describes an enviable level of ease with oneself. For young writers, the Journey Prize is a marker along the trajectory to that state of mind, because being at home in one’s own skin is a precondition for taking flight as a writer. If you can’t be honest with yourself, readers won’t believe you, either.

This year’s collection ably demonstrates this point. The thirteen stories selected by editors Steven Galloway (Ascension), Zsuzsi Gartner (All the Anxious Girls on Earth), and Annabel Lyon (The Best Thing for You) hum with rooted energy, enough to be risky with form and content. In the editors’ words, “We were suckers for balls-out-bravado.” Like the stories in last year’s collection, these dealt with themes as sober as loss, death, betrayal and longing, but it’s in the telling that they differ. There’s many a sly wink and cheeky one-liner in these pages.

One of the few writers in Journey’s eighteen-year history to enjoy more than one appearance in a given anthology (only three others have done so), Craig Boyko is the standard-bearer for playfulness. His tight prose has a delirious, tripped-out quality that reeks of confidence. “The Baby,” a modern tale of new fatherhood dryly told, brings Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to mind. “I offered to take the baby hunting (in truth I wanted to ‘accidentally’ lose it in the wilderness; whether the wolves ate it or raised it was quite frankly of no consequence to me) but Delia put the kibosh on that idea in no uncertain terms.”

Boyko claims American postmodernist Donald Barthelme as an influence for that story, but “The Beloved Departed” most clearly recalls Barthelmesque pacing and tone. This surrealist tale, originally written as a twenty-thousand word novella, is a dream on speed. Surrounded by a chorus of doctors, friends, and family members, the Orpheus-like Claude petitions for a pass to the City of the Dead to see his girlfriend once more. Entirely dialogue-driven, the free-associative story hurtles forward, unchecked, as a bewildered Claude wonders whether he’s awake and ponders the human condition: “The fact that you’re born to die makes patience impossible, desire unquenchable, joy fleeting, creeping boredom the only status quo. Because you must die, you must hurry, must fight tooth and nail, must forever ask yourself, ‘What now? What next?’” As if to demonstrate, there’s not a moment’s pause until the story screeches to its abrupt end, leaving the reader out on the pavement and blinking hard against the daylight. Clearly, Boyko is a writer to watch.

Rather than toying with the reader directly, Martin West’s eremitic first-person narrator exacts this behaviour on the others in “Cretacea.” After an all-night shooting binge (dead animals, old TVs, lamps, car windows), he follows the reactions of his Alberta Badlands neighbours with the curiosity of a social scientist, feigning interest in the crime as he covers his own tracks. In this sly satire of small-town politics, West only falters when he asks the reader to believe that his main character is so Luddite that he can’t decipher the sound of his ringing cell phone.

The goat-like scent of a younger brother opens David Whitton’s “Eclipse,” in which the unreliable narrator forcibly shepherds his brother to respectability even as the cracks in his own civil veneer begin to show. Just when the reader has grown accustomed to Chet’s annoyingly superior voice, he decides he’s tired of it himself and begins a downward spiral that eclipses anything his brother has done. The brothers’ roles are neatly and speedily reversed, and the reader is sent back through the story to reassess.

If some of the more serious stories in the collection feel earnest, even overwrought, it’s possible that the wise-cracking company they keep is responsible. A collection of stories like this one is necessarily a cacophonous experience—a continuity of voice and theme isn’t possible or even desirable—but when punchy, playful wit predominates, stories that might have felt poignant in other collections seem like a morose, Goethe-quoting teenager in this one.

Two stories neatly resist categorization: Melanie Little’s wise, sardonic “Wrestling,” and Heather Birrell’s metro hip “BriannaSusannaAlana.” Little’s tale of hotel housekeeper Wilhemina crackles with energy and wit, and her characters are charmingly offbeat. (You find yourself wanting a grandmother cool enough to be called Gram Gram.) Like A Complicated Kindness, it’s a sad story infused with hope; what’s behind the door of room 317 is a catalyst for transformation. You root for her, somehow knowing she’ll make it.

Birrell nimbly charts the vagaries of urban existence in “BriannaSusannaAlana,” where teenagers slide from flicking sugar packets at Starbucks to fellating in a parkette and every lone male near a playground is a possible predator. Birrell tells the story in three separate voices, one for each of six-, ten-, and thirteen-year-old sisters, recounting their whereabouts the day of a murder. Her evocation of the six-year-old’s voice is particularly compelling, but it’s her ability to train a steady and unblinking eye in the story’s conclusion that distinguishes her.

Reading a story by a writer ‘good in the skin’ is knowing that you’re in capable hands: wherever the story’s going, the writer can take you there. The Journey Prizeis aptly named, and Journey Prize Stories 18 is thirteen rollicking good rides to elsewhere.