Thomas Allen, 2012
Softcover, 207 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
Although I am in complete sympathy with the practical necessity of our social prohibition against “rubbernecking” at the scene of an accident, I have never agreed with the righteous moral indignation that comes attached to the term and the attendant assumption that the behaviour is driven by a base and prurient fascination with the pain of others. Nothing seems more natural to me than a curiosity about the worst that life can encompass and a need to takes one’s own measure against it. The undeniable fascination inherent in the scene of a high-speed car crash or devastating house fire, for example, resides, I believe, not in the misfortune of others but in our own need to know just what we’re up against in this thing called life. It’s our simultaneous need to know and dread of knowing that imbues these situations with their peculiar emotional atmosphere. All of which is a rather round-about way of introducing East Coast writer Russell Wangersky’s new collection of short stories, Whirl Away, for it is within this allure of the catastrophic that the fascination of his writing resides.
Wangersky, an editor and columnist with the St. John’s Telegram, has risen rapidly through the ranks of Canadian literature since he began to attract attention in the early 2000’s. He first came to my notice with his award-winning non-fiction book Burning Down the House (2008) a very personal account of his experiences during an eight-year career as a volunteer firefighter. He has since published a critically acclaimed first novel The Glass Harmonica (2010) before adding Whirl Away to the list this year.
It is worth spending a little time revisiting Wangersky’s nonfiction Burning Down the House, as the experiences recounted here inform both the writing in Whirl Away and the readers’ response to it. Throughout its pages Wangersky demonstrates a (freely admitted) near obsessive but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the implacable, disinterested physics of catastrophe with its devastating emotional impact. In his early twenties, Wangersky, fulfilling an early boyhood dream, began his career as a volunteer fireman and first-responder, in the small town of Wolfeville, Nova Scotia. Naively unprepared for what awaited him, and with an perhaps unsuitably analytical mind, his experiences over the next eight years left him with recurring nightmares and a profound distrust of life. By becoming part of others’ catastrophes, he learned, probably faster than is advisable, that
something horrible could happen to [him] just by bare-naked chance (…) and it’s always out there, on the edge of happening.
As he, himself, explains,
I could never shake the notion that there was really something out there, waiting for you. Not an intelligent presence as much as an amorphous, shadowy thing, the kind of black cloud that exists on the edge of your vision in the evening in a darkening house. The sort of thing you glimpse but that always vanishes when you stare straight at it.
The sensibility expressed in these two comments defines the common focus and atmosphere of the Whirl Away collection. Again and again the author revisits the idea of the invisible threat, of capricious catastrophe, of the fine, flickering balance between good and evil in human nature, and the folly of trust.
Having read Burning Down the House, it is impossible for me to know what one’s response to Whirl Away might be without that previous exposure. There may be some cumulative effect. As it stands, I head into a Wangersky story on high alert — hypersensitive to nuance, and anxious to read the signs — deeply invested in anticipating the “accident scene” that I (like the author himself) am convinced is lurking somewhere, lest I happen upon it unsuspecting and unprepared. I am at the same time, however, compelled to find it and gaze upon it, to test my resiliency against the worst that life (or Wangersky) has to offer. The accompanying affect is akin to a sharp-pitched whine — the result, no doubt, of the high frequency oscillation of one’s emotions from intense curiosity to dread and back again — an emotional state not unlike that of a “rubbernecker,” afraid to look and afraid not to.
As one makes one’s way through the work, the sense of threat takes on an almost palpable, animate presence, and follows one from story to story. This phenomenon, which I will dub “the Wangersky effect,” contributes significantly to the power of the stories, and the author is growing masterful in his use of it to manipulate reader responses. Sometimes, as in the story “Little World,” a startling brutality erupts relatively early in the story, leaving one with a false sense of having weathered this encounter with the shadow, only to later discover a far more persistent, pervasive and disturbing darkness. In other stories, in particular, “McNally’s Fair,” a subtle cat-and-mouse game is put in play, in which the reader, hypersensitive to connotation that might not even exist if the writer were anyone else, imagines a series of looming catastrophes (a tragic fall? suicide? rape? murder?) where none, in fact, exist, or, perhaps more accurately, manifest at the time. To return to the earlier quote, Wangersky allows a number of “black clouds” to begin to emerge at the edge of one’s vision, which do, in fact, evaporate under a direct gaze. Meanwhile, the real threat is content to bide its time, invisible in plain sight, just on the edge of happening. “The Thunder,” an ancient and decaying roller coaster in a small-time fairgrounds, its chronic neglect disguised under an annual coat of bright paint, is, quite literally, a catastrophe waiting to happen. Looming and lurid against the skyline, it stands as a suitable central metaphor for the entire collection — the new paint the curtain of denial with which we shield ourselves from the essential instability and insecurity of life.
The impact of the stories is somewhat uneven, with “The Bolt” getting things off to a mildly disappointing start, the tale of marital disharmony too obvious and the mechanics of the story too visible. However, even here, the author’s concerns are evident, the true heart of the narrative being, not the pedestrian human drama, but the subject of the title, and the way in which a piece of the innocuous minutiae of everyday life, given the proper circumstances, turns deadly. There is an emphasis on the naivety of trust, and the devastation (physical and emotional) lurking just around the corner. The strongest stories (“McNally’s Fair,” “Little World,” “No Harm, No Foul,” “Look Away”) are also concerned with our collective delusion of security and the way in which we throw a veil of optimism and denial (like a coat of bright paint) over the sheer terror of existence. A state of safety or security, in a Wangersky story, is not an assumption of everyday life, but a momentary, delicate balance, ephemeral and insubstantial as a mirage, a tiny miraculous force field subject to instantaneous and inevitable collapse.
Whirl Away is not a comfortable experience. Few truly fascinating ones are.
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