Excerpt


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Review in Books in Canada

In his debut collection, A Day Does Not Go By, Sean Johnston at first glance deploys the kind of affectless and apparently artless prose made famous by Raymond Carver (in a direct line of descent from Ernest Hemingway) and badly imitated ever since. Hemingway himself, of course, knew better. In his famous "iceberg principle” of fiction writing he explained that, if the writer was writing honestly and out of a deep knowledge of the story, much could be omitted, yet the reader would still feel its presence below the surface as strongly as if it were on the page. But he added, "The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing." Unfortunately, too many contemporary examples of this style offer us only the hollow places, failing to connect us with the characters and leaving us unmoved by the journey.

Johnston's writing, by contrast, manages to suggest that invisible deeper knowledge and thus draw us into the [existences] of ordinary people who live often marginal, struggling lives. The settings are often Canadian versions of Carver's small Midwestern towns (in this case small-town Saskatchewan, where Johnston himself grew up), and the Carveresque central character is male, usually working class, leading a routine life of physical labour and drinking, sometimes wrestling with whether to leave his girlfriend or wife. This too is Carver territory - the cut-the-air-with-a-knife atmosphere, the inability of the couple to either stay together or let go. Yet Johnston's characters are able to locate their feelings in a way that's beyond the numbness of Carver's. In the story, "Their Names", the unnamed central character, in the midst of a quarrel with his wife, is described this way: "He was capable of huge naked blocks of feeling, almost none of which could be fit into the shape of words. It was one of the things she had loved about him, in the beginning." Johnston is very good on male inarticulateness in the face of female verbal acuity and rage; he’s also good at male tenderness, as in this passage from the newly married protagonist of “Here, and Now”: "She's my wife. That woman there, the one with the slender body I was still surprised to hold, the one with the nose you might think too large until that elastic smile wrote her face back into joyous proportion and love was the only way with that woman, she's my wife." It's a relief to read fiction that doesn't portray men as out of touch with or incapable of any insight into their own feelings.

Johnston has another card up his sleeve, though, one that Carver doesn't use, and that emerges in the surreality of such stories as "Nothing Like This," in which a seven-year-old boy is officially ruled a myth by his school (and then accepted as such by his baffled parents) because he was blamed for "everything, but none of the parents had ever seen him. It could not be real." In "We Can't Go On Like This," a baby is born from a cash machine to an elderly couple who are encouraged by a "freelance" prophet to raise him … it's interesting to see a young writer experimenting with a range of narrative possibilities rather than sticking to a purely naturalistic mode.

But it's naturalism that Johnston does best. In "Spiders Door to Door," despite the surreal touch of a spider salesman, the story turns out to be a surprising exploration of desire involving the salesman, an older waitress at the local donut shop, and a couple in which the husband is wheelchair-bound. At first we guess that the salesman is headed for an affair with the wife, who he has sized up as sexually unsatisfied: " … just by her shifting legs under her light dregs, you could tell. She was antsy. There was something she wasn't getting from the old man." But instead, when the salesman slips into their house in the evening, he becomes a voyeur, a witness to their genuine desire and love for each other. Voyeurism, in fact, may be his fetish — he also spies on the waitress — but the ambiguous ending opens up the possibility of an alternative outcome.

In "You Still Don't," told, unconventionally, in the first person plural, a kind of Hemingwayesque poetry emerges, depicting a group of men digging a pipeline who are confronted with the possibility of a dead body. "And we looked at him, glad to be taken from the work, because the work wasn't important even though we talked about it all day long and at night every time we went for a beer." Here the rhythm of the sentence, the repetition of "work," the use of "and" as a linking device all contribute to the breathless fear of the men as they attempt to decide what and how much to do about their discovery … it evokes both a real dilemma and the physicality of a world written out of the body's experience (Johnston has worked as a labourer and surveyor).

Johnston shows that he can use imagery effectively, as in his description of the woman in "Spiders Door to Door": …the ridge of her spine curves like a slow whip." Here the simile works precisely because the device is used sparingly.

A Day Does Not Go By won the David Adams Richards Award for Fiction last year [and won the ReLit Award for Short Fiction] — a sign that Johnston's quiet prose is getting deserved notice."

—Patricia Robertson is the author of the story collection City of Orphans and is currently completing a novel.