Excerpt


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Review in The Malahat Review

Where many short story collections suggest a scraping together of mismatched bits and pieces, Sean Johnston's collection (winner of New Brunswick's David Adams Richard Award for emerging fiction) has the rare virtue of uniformity in style and theme. In this, it resembles such early classics as Joyce's The Dubliners, and Hemingway's In Our Time.

The congruence of the individual pieces is not the only characteristic that recalls Hemingway. There is the same laconic style, based on colloquial speech with frequent non-sequiturs, the same avoidance of polysyllabic words and figurative language. Lowercase titles are allusive fragments of sentences or phrases that invite questions or demand completion by the reader. The sketchy characters tend to be generalized versions of everyman and everywoman, referred to merely as "he" and "she," or types such as "the loser," "the prophet," "the hero," and "the saint." Many stories consist of inconsequential dialogue between characters in crisis; the reader at first intuits a dark undertow, and finally reaches an understanding of the conflicts and confusions that are not openly expressed.

In "there is a way," for example, a young couple exchanges brief comments as they work side by side, he painting the walls of a room, she packing up boxes of books. The reader eventually understands, as the story concludes, that the anguished pair (he is more anguished than she) is splitting up and going their separate ways:

"I'm going out for a cigarette," she said. "You gonna come?"

This is tough, alright, he thought, but somehow people do it. A cigarette couldn't hurt.

So he went outside and took the cigarette she gave him. His hands were all paint, so she lit it for him. It was a hot day, but they sat in the shade.

Another story, "they're for you," consists mainly of dialogue between a wife and the estranged husband she discovers naked and drunk in the swimming pool of the home they have recently shared. From the terse exchanges it becomes apparent that they have separated on the eve of a planned trip to Ireland, and that the man next door may or may not have something to do with the break-up. As the sun rises, a delivery boy appears to present the woman with a previously ordered bouquet of roses. By this time, all concerned are exhausted:

Mike yawned.

"Are you really leaving me?" he asked.

"I don't know," Wendy said. "But I'm tired."

"Me too, but That's no answer."

"I know."

Some of the longer stories have theatre-of-the-absurd situations, with characters disoriented by a sense of meaninglessness and the incoherence of their existence. The husband and wife of "nothing like this" have sought marital counselling and are oppressed by the fear (or knowledge) that their child is merely imaginary. In "the whole time I was here," two strangers, meeting in a barren landscape, ponder the fate of a dead man until he suddenly shows signs of life.”

—Joan Givner, The Malahat Review