This short story collection from Thistledown Press explores an underworld of misfits: arsonists, strip club bouncers-people who function outside ordinary social norms, and are emotionally insulated from the pitifulness of their own lives. There is an oddly Canadian texture here, a kind of understatement in which tragedy is filtered through the lens of wry humour.
An apocalyptic flavour runs through James Marshalls Lets Not Let a Little Thing Like the End of the World Come Between Us. In the first story, The Last Thing You Want To Look At In A Strip Club, a bouncer tries to come to terms with impending fatherhood: ...ever since Miranda told me...Ive been doing this. Coming into the can. Putting my hands on the sides of the sink. Looking into the mirror. This is a world of barely suppressed violence and voyeurism. The protagonists first person narrative is appropriately hard-edged as he tries to reconcile contrasting feelings of smouldering anger and tenderness towards his stripper girlfriend and her colleagues.
In Part-Time Angels two arsonists are in ecstasy as a fire rages around them. Marshall powerfully evokes the exhilarated, heady experience of the duo even as deer with frantic eyes run past riding the wave of the fire, and heat turns their eyes to watering cans. I kiss her smoky lips, says the narrator who then yells to his girlfriend, Rhapsody: Its so close I can feel its [the fires] pulse.
Marshalls characters are given back stories which unravel within the narrative without too much contrivance. The arsonists love of flame originated in a car accident that killed his parents and baby brother, and left him severely burned. His intense fear went somehow into reverse until he was like, somebody whos afraid of heights and tries skydiving and loves it...
Running through many of the stories is a deep-rooted anxiety about politics south of the Canadian border; images of violence and invasion provide a backdrop to some of the relationships in the collection. Two teenagers engage in a quirky sex talk in the title story of the collection. If you were a country, Id move to you, says Paige. Her desires move faster than her words. ...I desperately wanted him...to annihilate my government, to carpet bomb my troops... Marshall dares to give his youthful characters a wit and eloquence which is both delightful and entirely plausible.
But this particular story is let down by a curiously conventional ending: the sensitive boyfriend, Tom-who had once been bullied himself but has since learned how to fight-turns hero when at a High School dance he punches out his girls boorish tormentor. Paige sees the fight in military terms: Its laser-guided punch. A smart, thousand-pound, precision punch.
Perhaps the authors intention is to draw on the might means right moral quandary which runs through much of the collection in order to end this story with a problem rather than a solution. But the incident results in the awkward, virginal protagonist suddenly giving herself up to sex with her rescuer. This makes the unexpected element of fantasy-romance at the end even more irksome.
The longest story of the collection, Stalkers Have Feelings Too, You Know, combines many of the books thematic elements-emotionally disturbed people, a waggish view of the world, and the brute drive of U.S. foreign policy. Chester speeds through an Albertan night as his bodybuilder friend Max does crunches through the shattered passenger seat window. Max narrowly avoids being struck several times by opposing traffic while his girlfriend, Veronica, cries in the back seat.
Maxs callous treatment of Veronica reminds Chester of the extreme right-wing politics he abhors. They are returning from a day trip to the West Edmonton Mall where Max has casually told Veronica he has been having multiple affairs with women customers at the gym he manages. Max has explained to Chester the reason for his cheating. He is sick of being with a chick who was so Barbie-doll perfect. Chester thinks the real reason runs deeper and has something to do with Maxs mother and his fear of rejection. Sleeping with other women, Chester reasons, is an Iraq-style, pre-emptive strike. To avoid being hurt like that again.
The interplay between the three characters during the hellish drive is rich and entertaining. While Max and Veronica shout barbs at each other through the shattered window, Chester realizes that all he has to do to prevent the catastrophe of injury or death is to pull up on the side of the road. This he cannot do; it may force him to confront himself, and explain why he had stolen so many items of makeup and clothes from Veronicas bedroom.
With the frantic, self-destructive energy of its characters, Stalkers have Feelings Too, You Know, offers an apt climax to this often striking collection. Paul Butler
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
Marshall engages the reader, builds suspense and maximizes the climactic impact -- Quill and Quire, January, 2005
Marshall mates theme with character and hits his stride. -- Globe and Mail,December 18, 2004
Marshall's interest is in showing his characters on the edge, grappling with forces out of their control. -- The Georgia straight, March 10-16, 2005
Rich with descriptive detail, you can't help but be fascinated by the visual images he creates. -- Monday Magazine, March 10-16, 2005
telegraphs a certain sardonic sense of humour that pervades most of the stories. -- Winnipeg Free Press, January 30, 2005
Short-listed for the Best First Book category in the Caribbean and Canada region of the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Short-listed for the ReLit Award for the short fiction category. In a second to none engagement of the reader, James Marshalls stories bristle with fictional restlessness. This debut collection is a true literary find and Marshalls an exciting new voice. James Marshalls wit is acidic, salvaged by a deep, although shaken, humanism. His stories are charmed with the glow of small-time Canadian losers and dreamers living in a broken, plugged-in world. This is Heinrich Böll for our time, Alice Munro dressed in jeans and leather, pumped up on testosterone and fear, Raymond Carver taken north to drown in the middle of a forest fire, each alcoholic bubble bursting into flame, and, always, the wounded, broken, and oddly heroic Canada of a thousand ironies we all live in but havent yet had in a book, and, thankfully, miraculously have in this book now. Harold Rhenish