‘Hamburger’ by Daniel Perry

Book Reviews

HamburgerReviewed by Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

Like the eponymous comfort food, this first collection of short fiction by Toronto writer Daniel Perry seems, at first glance, rather straightforward. Indeed, Hamburger has moments that feel ubiquitous in contemporary fiction; certain disaffections and critiques that must once have been novel have since been well articulated. Insurmountable cultural divides, alienation in the city, slow trickles of abuse that lead to angry outbursts… these are the concerns of Perry’s stories. Though the themes are common, this is thoroughly by design. Perry’s book is like the sandwich: the simple bread is a necessary vehicle for the real meat.

Divided into three sections──“Coarse,” “Medium” and “Fine”──these twenty-three pieces vary greatly in content and style. The first section, a collection of very short stories, begins with the piece that gives the collection its title. Here an urban, office-working everyperson remembers and regrets, delights and despairs over his food-court meal. Humans as cows, aware in the slaughterhouse, “as a belt conveys your bodies toward the grinder.” Coarse indeed.

Consider another one of these very short openers: “A Real Princess.” Here Perry skewers the mania for Disneyesque princesses that seems to grip so many contemporary children (and their tired parents) by imagining some delightfully absurd consequences of growing up on a strict diet of Happily Ever After. As in “Hamburger,” this story regurgitates some prevalent attitudes, but it does so with an entertaining bite that might just elicit some out-loud laughs.

But if “Coarse” is a collection of miniatures which revisit established literary landscapes, the lengthier pieces of “Medium” showcase an author who is subtly pushing through toward something more fresh. The absolute best in this section is the story “Vaporetto.” Once again, the ingredients are not particularly rare: marital strife, guilt in the wake of trauma, an unfamiliar city for unfamiliar feelings and metafictional footnotes. Familiar stuff, but Perry handles it deftly. The writer-protagonist’s first-person narrative blurs the borders between tragic events themselves and the account of those events. Those footnotes start off as meta-critiques (to wit: “Can I still say this? I hear it’s all over Fifty Shades of Grey.”), causing a weary groan at their first appearance. But they are redeemed when they eventually progress into meta-metafiction, critiquing themselves as clichés of contemporary writing “because David Foster Wallace used them.” Stories like these show how Hamburger consistently skirts cliché from both sides, exploiting both the face value of the worn-out trope and the value of critical reflection.

The final segment, “Fine,” includes a single story: “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole.” The longest piece in the book, this too works with material that, considered in its broadest strokes, could seem overdone. A Canadian family heads to Europe to finally visit the grave of their patriarch who died in the War; the journey stirs up old grievances and long-buried secrets.

But once again, Perry layers the ordinary with subtle complexities that push us into new territory. The extended Doole family arrives in the Netherlands with varying levels of enthusiasm. When they arrive at the grave of James Arthur Doole, the grief of the family is strong, while Doole’s widow seems unmoved. That night in the hotel, Mrs. Doole records her angry, disappointed history of James’s life. She gives this account to her grandchild Garrett, a writer, but when he reinterprets Doole’s life for War Stories Monthly, he falls almost entirely back into the romantic patterns of World War II fiction. These narrative strata are arranged such that none is more authoritative than any other. This is not a story of unreliable voices, or ambiguity, or shocking information that overturns previous understanding. This is a story about how reality is complicated and polyvalent. “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole” is simultaneously earnest and ironic, simple and intricate.

Daniel Perry’s stories are confident and nuanced. However straightforward it may seem, Hamburger is much more than ordinary.


Thistledown | 183 pages | $18.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1771870979

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Contributor

Andrew Woodrow-Butcher


Andrew Woodrow-Butcher has been a Toronto bookseller for about two decades. He is currently the Director of Library Services for The Beguiling, and Manager of Little Island Comics, North America’s first and only comic book shop just for kids.