Anne Fleming’s short story collection Pool-Hopping and Other Stories (1998), above all else, reminded me how much I love reading short stories. I’ve never really understood why so many readers who are keen to pick up novels are somehow reluctant to check out a book of short stories. Are people really so lazy they don’t want to take the trouble to reorient themselves a few more times throughout a book instead of just at the beginning? Fleming’s short stories are definitely worth the effort: I would count Pool-Hopping among some of the best short fiction I’ve ever read, up there with Ivan E. Coyote’s thousand-word one-time punches and Alice Munro’s strangely familiar tales. In fact, the short stories in Pool-Hopping recall the everyday queerness of Ivan Coyote and the precision and impeccable narrative timing of Alice Munro. You couldn’t really ask for a better combination than that, now could you?
Like Coyote and Munro, Fleming expertly uncovers the extraordinary in the everyday; reading these stories is like looking at something intimately familiar at the slightest different angle so that it becomes new, if just for a few moments. They’re a sudden twist on someone or something you know that gives you that uncanny, out of body feeling, like a panning out of the camera on the movie of your life. Not every fiction writer is able to achieve memorable, genuine characterization and exact, vivid settings in the space of a short story but Fleming has a talent for precision and beautifully sparse diction that is consistent across this collection. It sounds so simple, but Fleming is unfailingly focused on telling the story. You don’t realize how rare the quality is until you run across a writer like her who actually has it.
The stories themselves are as diverse content-wise as Fleming’s narrative voice is consistent. The characters in whose lives you feel so invested after a few short pages are queer, straight, young, old, men, women: people of different backgrounds, sizes, locations (although often thes stories reference Toronto, where Fleming grew up), and perspectives. One of the standouts for me in the collection was “Anomaly,”—the seed for Fleming’s later novel of the same name that I am excited to read soon—which brilliantly captures a young girl’s perspective on those childhood events that seem so momentous you’ll never live past them: such as, your mother’s scolding when you bring your albino sister to school as your show-and-tell and you don’t realize why this was an awful thing to do. I also loved the brilliant opening story “The Defining Moments of My Life,” which is structured in two parts, the first from the point of view of the main character’s mother. The shorter half describes these defining moments “as envisioned by [her] mother when pregnant” and is juxtaposed against the character’s actual lifetime highlights, including kissing her friend Sara in a bathroom stall, which “is exactly what [she’s] always wanted since the first day [they] met, though knowing it is news to [her].” Two of the stories were especially heartbreaking: in one, a straight man who is marrying his lesbian best friend for immigration purposes is terrified to tell her he actually loves her and is not sure he can go through with the wedding; in the other, an older man grieving the loss of his wife tries to make up for the homophobic neglect of his gay son, who has HIV. In “Virginia,” a younger lesbian tries to connect with her great aunt, whom she suspects to also be gay. The story brilliantly tackles different generational understandings of queerness.
Truthfully, it’s hard to pick favourites from Pool-Hopping, because there wasn’t a single story I didn’t like and that didn’t move me in a profound way, which in itself says a great deal about a 13-story c0llection. It’s not to say that all the characters in the stories are likable, even the queer ones; one story in particular, “Solar Plexus,” features a teenage boy whose extreme insecurity, coupled with a patriarchal understanding of women and relationships, leads to his failure to understand that no means no. Not all of the stories have ‘happy endings;’ in fact many of them don’t, although they always end at what feels like the ‘right’ time for the narrative. It’s just that Fleming has a talent for evoking understanding and empathy, even in unlikely places. She is constantly reminding us that our humanity, in all its wonderful, weird, and terrifying diversity, is the only thing we all have in common. It’s something we unfortunately need to be reminded of, and that we ought to hear more often.