One thing I love about the Giller Prize is that they don’t ignore the short story. Each year I look forward to reading at least one short story collection due to its place on the Giller list. This year, it’s Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away (2012), a collection of stories that take simple characters to the brink. I was impressed and delighted by many of the parts, but on the whole, I found it disappointing. I’m still trying to understand how that could be.
Whirl Awaycontains 12 stories, most only 15 to 20 pages long. They go down quickly. Indeed, perhaps one of my problems with the stories was the general feel that, overall, they were straightforward, something I don’t look for in short stories.
For example, the second story in the collection, “Echo,” though narrated in the third-person narrator, closely follows the perceptions of Kevin, a five-year-old boy whose father is often gone because he drives shipping trucks. When his father is around, he leaves an indelible impression on Kevin, but it’s not the one you hope for. Kevin goes around talking “in short, tight bursts of words”: “Don’t you care what I think?” “There you go again. How many times to I have to listen to this stuff?” “Save it for someone who cares.” “Maybe you should just sit down and shut up for once.” It’s a sad story that doesn’t end well, yet I couldn’t help but think that as well as it was written there wasn’t much to it. I have said next to nothing about this story, yet I’m confident you already know what’s going on here. This makes it, in a way, not particularly well written. It’s something like this: great at a sentence level, not so great at a global level.
I had a similar problem with the first story in the collection, “Bolt.” At the beginning, a man dies in a car wreck (there are many car wrecks in this collection, and I have no problem with that since car wrecks all too often take someone from us out of the blue). The story reminded me a bit of William Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” because “Bolt” deals with the two women in the dead man’s life, his estranged wife Bev and his open mistress Anne. Here’s our introduction to the two women:
“John was coming home,” Bev said.
“No, he wasn’t.”
“Yes he was, bitch. He was on his way here when he crashed. He was coming home for good. Why do you think he had all his stuff?”
So the story looks at the dead man’s relationship with these two women as they wonder just what he was doing when he died. As much as I like the foundation, again it just didn’t feel like it went all the way. It doesn’t examine through language and the structure of the short story much else than the surface level fears the two women have.
So I enjoyed on one level the first two stories, but ultimately they disappointed me. That was not the case with the third, “McNally’s Fair,” which I loved through and through for its subdued tone as it looks at the subdued life of Dennis Meany, a man who travels from small job to small job. He’s known for his silence, “a kind of silence often taken for disdain,” and he was always the easiest to fire since he didn’t put up a fuss. Once his personality is set up we learn that he was married to a woman named Heather: “They were the last ones in their high school class to pair up, and when they did, it had seemed to be because they both looked around at the same time and realized there weren’t any other reasonable choices left.”
They didn’t love each other, and Dennis finally moved on, sending checks home each month until he got a letter telling him not to bother anymore. He found he didn’t mind, and yet:
Sometimes, he would turn around and be absolutely convinced that something was missing, as if he had lost his wallet or misplaced a false front tooth, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was that was gone. It didn’t have shape or colour; it wasn’t like a sweater missing from a closet, or an important tool left out in the snow and buried.
Dennis couldn’t imagine that it was as simple as loneliness, because he didn’t think he was lonely.
As the story moves on, we feel terribly for Dennis and we sympathize with his pathetic efforts to meet and court some other girls. At the same time, we are a bit terrified of him and of what his loneliness could bring him to do. As much as I enjoyed this story — and I’d say it’s worth the entire collection — I was still reminded of an even better short story by Maile Meloy, “Travis, B.” Still, “McNally Fair” shows that Wangersky can write beautifully and compose an overall beautiful story (beautiful not necessarily meaning all happy, obviously).
This story was the highlight of the collection for me. The next nine stories, as the first three, were all well written but varied in how much they felt like well executed exercises (“911”) or fully committed short stories (“Family Law,” “Sharp Corner”). Despite my disappointment in the whole, I still found enough I enjoyed throughout the collection to make it very much worth while.