By Maurice Mierau

Last October I heard about a young Canadian fiction writer named D.W. Wilson winning the inaugural BBC National Short Story Award ($24,000 prize!) and having his first collection, Once You Break A Knuckle, published by Hamish Hamilton. I assigned the book for review to a freelancer in upstate New York who’d contacted me out of the cyber-blue, and encouraged him to make some assessment of whether this book was really the extraordinary debut the publicity campaign suggested.

Unfortunately, as often happens in the glamorous, highly-paid world of Canadian book reviewing, the freelancer disappeared along with the beautiful, jacketless hard cover book that we’d mailed to him.

In the months since then I’ve read the book myself. I understand better now why Mark Medley began his story about Wilson with the nervous young author meeting one of his heroes, Guy Vanderhaeghe.  Like Vanderhaeghe at the start of his career, Wilson writes stories about tough, hard-scrabble characters in a specific part of rural Canada (mostly southern Saskatchewan in Vanderhaeghe’s case, and all Kootenay Valley in Wilson’s). And Wilson has a compelling interest in the business of being male in this landscape:

To the untrained eye a judo tournament is indistinguishable from a toga party only by the presence of referees. It is a gathering of people screaming at combatants in white pajamas, a place where redneck wives cough and turn their heads when their husbands grind their hips and paw each other’s chests. It is a place of broken arms and vanquished hopes, concussions, overpriced hotdogs, and eastern Europeans. [“The Elasticity of Bone”]

Humour, although bleak, is one of the few acceptable ways for men to communicate emotion in Wilson’s fictional world:

At the airport, a young security guard with nervous hands detained my old man for a key chain fashioned like little handcuffs. They could be used as thumb traps, the guard said. To cut off a person’s thumbs. My old man deadpanned the poor bastard and said if anyone actually got caught like that, they didn’t deserve thumbs. [“Reception”]

While the stories are not openly self-conscious about form, there are transcendent moments, as in the remarkable last sentence of “The Dead Roads,” which won Wilson his big prize: “Then she whipped the empty bottle off the summit, and I stared at her and thought about her and waited for the sound of the bottle breaking way, way below us.” The bottle’s metaphorical fall is perfectly contained in the Hemingwayesque, compound sentence.

Guy Vanderhaeghe also won a big prize for his first book, the Governor General’s Award for Man Descending, his 1982 collection of short stories. He was a bit older than Wilson, thirty-one rather than twenty-six, and had a bit more life experience. I know this because he was my high school history teacher in the small town of Herbert, Saskatchewan in 1977, although you can trace his spoor on Wikipedia too.

Consequently (and causation here is speculative) Vanderhaeghe’s characters range more widely in age and background than Wilson’s. Man Descending has “selected” in the subtitle, and the acknowledgements tell you that the stories were published in Canadian literary magazines over a period of time.  The book isn’t tightly unified the way Wilson’s is almost novelistic. It also isn’t nakedly autobiographical (not that such a label stopped Proust); Wilson on the other hand has a character who makes the contrary decision to what he did, with the character heading back to the Kootenays and following his dad into the RCMP (I’m basing this speculation on Medley’s NP piece), rather than going from university in Victoria to graduate school somewhere else.

Vanderhaeghe’s gift for comedy expresses itself in narrative voice and comic dialogue. Charlie’s voice in “The Watcher,” for example: “I wasn’t sure at the age of six what a miscarriage was, but I knew that Ida Thompson had had one and that now her plumbing was buggered.” Or listen to Charlie’s outspoken Grandma Bradley: “And did you ever ask yourself, Evelyn, what the hell this genius is doing with you? Or is it just the same old problem with you—elevator panties? Some guy comes along and pushes the button. Up, down. Up, down.” Then there’s the wonderful comic invention of Ed in the title story, who also shows up as protagonist in Vanderhaeghe’s neglected sophomore novel My Present Age (1984).

Is Wilson’s debut as impressive as Vanderhaeghe’s was? Not really. But it’s still a remarkable book, stylistically taut, jumping with energy and empathy. And if most of that empathy is for young men, there’s also a few stories where Wilson makes you feel some middle-aged despair too, albeit only male. But give this writer the extra five years Vanderhaeghe had and he’ll achieve something big.


In May I read another quite riveting debut, Anakana Schofield’s Malarky (Biblioasis), which was reviewed in TWR by Montreal writer Beverley Akerman. I want reviewers to be provocative, and the comments on her piece show that she succeeded in that regard.

One commenter lamented the fact that Akerman spent her 800 words talking about Graham Greene instead of focusing on Malarky. This comment assumes that, in the infinite space of the Interweb, the editor forces writers to go short. I do not, and instead impose a minimum of about 800 words. In addition I encourage reviewers to write longer pieces, to quote from the work under review, to digress, to establish context, to react emotionally, and to analyze their reactions.

But in the real world reviewers, paid a pittance by a publication that is not exactly The New York Review of Books, tend to limit themselves to a relatively short piece. Perhaps in this case I should have had Akerman write some more, especially in her breezy reference to the novel’s last act.

(For the record: I don’t suppress negative comments, if they’re not abusive to the point of hatefulness, although I’m always tempted to insist on full names when letters take an ad hominem tack, as a number of these did. And again for the record: the only time I’ve actually suppressed a comment was one from a Canadian Afghanistan veteran who ranted obscenely and insultingly about how he had defended freedom for all of us slackers, and now John K. Samson had the gall to exercise that freedom criticizing the Jets for their militaristic logo.)

The various commenters, in their rush to defend Schofield from what they saw as an insensitive review, perhaps missed the positive conclusion of Akerman’s piece. But I’ll go further than she did and say that Malarkey is a novel of astonishing, virtuosic technique—the shifts between first and third person, the first person pitch-perfect and extremely funny (OK, I agree with the blurb writers), all imbued with the heartbreaking voice of Our Woman and of Irish literature past, with Joyce in particular singing his dialogic song in the background of this wonderful book, as in this scene where Our Woman insists on seducing a reluctant, rather unattractive man:

Marriage is full of ups and downs, he said, still struggling with his belt. I’d advise you t-go to Accord, it’s a great service through the church. Belt off. Very understanding people, so it is. A wiggle, trousers lowering. I’d go meself if I had those kinda problems. I’m not a married man. Yet. Hah. He huffed and puffed on top of her and said you’re great, great, you’re a great girl the same affectionate way farmers talk to their cows—go on there and hup hup hup ya, hup there—and eventually as he moved about inside her, there was something heavy, flat and wedge about him.


Sometimes blurbs do put readers off books in unpredictable ways. Akerman’s review began with her dismay at what she considered inaccurate book blurbs. I’ll admit to being irritated, perhaps excessively so, by Jonathan Safran Foer’s blurb for Howard  Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. The blurb goes: “A real giant. A great, great writer.” Does Foer collect gems like this so that publishers can attach them randomly to books as they roll off the production line? Surely a writer doesn’t need to be “great, great”—isn’t that like being very unique, i.e. stupidly redundant? And yet this vapid line does say something about the novel.

I tried reading The Finkler Question while on holiday with my kids in Edmonton, at the fabulous water park during spring break. The novel bored me intensely. The narrator is a neurotic middle-aged man, a former BBC employee who naturally hates the BBC, and who would like to be Jewish, because apparently that would mildly decrease his mild self-loathing. This last impulse comes about after he is mugged (almost the only incident in a largely plotless narrative) coming home one night. Plotless narratives can be sustained by bravura style or flamboyant characters, but alas neither of those is present here. How The Finkler Question won the 2010 Man Booker Prize is a complete mystery to me (a friend of mine says his previous book was really good, so the 2010 Booker might have been a make-up call.)


A book I failed to assign and can’t do justice to in a few short paragraphs: Steven Heighton’s Work Book: Memos and Dispatches on Writing (ECW). A collection of aphorisms and miniature essays on writing would seem kinda pretentious in the wrong hands, but this author’s achievements and also his self-deprecating but earnest style carry the day. Heighton’s track record in multiple genres (poet, short story writer, novelist, translator, essayist) would be impressive enough, but he’s actually very good at all those things, not merely a specialist occasionally wandering out of the basement or lecture hall.

Here’s a few favourite samples of mine:

Let failure be your workshop. See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.

Embrace oblivion. The sooner you quit fretting about your present status and the long shot of posterity, the sooner you’ll write something that matters—while actually enjoying the effort, at least some of the time.

Could anyone else have written this thing? If Yes, start again.

In the long run, curiosity and stamina trump talent.

And I loved the opening rant about the necessity of boredom for writers in the face of the ubiquitous screen, the million distraction and entertainment devices we’re all surrounded by.


Over the last several months I’ve been reading John Ashbery’s Collected Poems 1956-1987. For about two decades I have tried and mostly failed to read this brilliant, opaque, often baffling, and yes prolific poet; this summer I’m looking forward to attending a reading by Ashbery in New York (more on that later).

The Collected Poems is a gorgeous must-own volume from the Library of America, complete with built-in ribbon-marker and an extensive “Chronology” that must have been written by Ashbery himself, though it’s all in the third person. There’s a fascinating Winnipeg connection here:

2005 In March, Ashbery begins correspondence with filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose work he has long admired. (p. 1005)

There are a total of three references to Guy Maddin in the chronology, including an entry for 1933, where Ashbery describes watching his first film and then lists the people with whom his interest has been “cultivated.” One of these is Maddin.

About twenty years ago, in the grimmest part of a Winnipeg winter, I attended a screening of Maddin’s earliest short, The Dead Father, on south Main Street, at the old NFB theatre that’s long gone.  The film was jaw-droppingly weird, but I failed to guess that Maddin’s influence would extend so far and wide. Probably everybody else in Winnipeg — and at The Village Voice — already knew.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Margaret Vanderhaeghe, visual artist and wife of Guy Vanderhaeghe. She passed away in May of this year.

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From the Editor's Desk

Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is executive editor of The Winnipeg Review. His most recent book of poems is Autobiographical Fictions (Palimpsest, 2015). His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, won the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.