Nancy Jo Cullen’s short story collection is the epitome of what I love about Canadian fiction: it’s brash, it’s ordinary, it’s clever, it’s rooted in place, it’s focused on everyday characters, it’s weird. To top all of this off, it’s also very, very queer. What’s extraordinary about this book’s treatment of LGBQ sexuality, though, is that the stories never centre around the characters’ queerness. There are no coming-out stories. Homophobia is never used as a plot device. Dealing with ‘being gay’ is not the focus of a single piece. The stories are actually about the complexities of LGBQ peoples’ lives and a lot of the fascinating, mundane, difficult, heartbreaking things that happen to them that have little or nothing to do with their sexualities. You know when you don’t realize you’ve been wanting something until you get it? Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy coming out stories. But it is so damn refreshing to read about queer characters doing other things and having more important things to worry about. It’s like LGBQ people in real life! Funny that this is something so novel.
I loved all of the stories in this collection, regardless of whether they featured queer characters. I was particularly warmed and fascinated by a story called “Passenger” that centres on a road trip taken by two unlikely companions: a widower taking his wife’s ashes to Niagara Falls and a feisty, just-discovered-feminism-in-first-year-university young queer woman. Both are escaping Fort St. John; they meet outside the local Tim Horton’s, where the young woman Rayanne jumps at the chance to get the hell out of there. Her goal is to get to the promised land: Vancouver. As she rants in the car about sexism and capitalism and the evils of the institution of marriage, the older man Harvey thinks: “Kids always think they’re the first to notice the world is unkind; it almost made a guy want to laugh.”
Canary also features a closeted married gay man who is a Catholic merchandise salesman; his wife is a former lounge singer who did covers of easy listening pop standards. There’s another story where some outcast cousins make out in a garden after they bump into each other having separately snuck out of the family gathering. Another called “Happy Birthday” centres around a dissatisfied stay-at-home mom, who resents her partner going off to work all day; her partner resents what she thinks are “cushy days” at home caring for two kids. The narrator tells us: “My affection for Lydia—and hers for me—had been devoured by sleep deprivation, grudges, and the constant demands of two children under six.” She’s even taken to sleeping with her old high school boyfriend to add some semblance of variety or excitement to her life.
My other favourite story was the first one in the collection, “Ashes.” Set in 1976 just before Mount St Helen’s volcano in Washington erupted, Cullen expertly parallels the slowly steaming mountain with the family’s barely concealed impending doom. They live in the Okanagan, and the most vivid parts of the story are the scenes where the teenage narrator’s dad takes her for driving lessons through the awesome scenery. He sits in the passenger seats and pops “the cap off his beer bottle with a Bic lighter.” He drops the empties when he’s done and lets them roll around the floor of the car. When Mount St. Helen’s finally erupts, killing a stubborn man who refused to leave his home and his cats, the narrator’s dad is doubly devastated: at the same time as his hero on the mountain is killed, he finds out the female friend his wife has been spending so much time with is actually her lover. She’s leaving him. Their daughter overhears their conversation through the wall while she’s still a bit drunk after coming home from a party.
Did I mention that Cullen has an amazing gift for capturing Canadian everyday vernacular? Sentences such as “Harvey was off the coffee now” seem so simple—and they are—but that’s just how a guy like Harvey from Fort St. John would say it. Not coffee, the coffee. The dialogue in this book is also great. Vancouver yuppie hippies talk like Vancouver yuppies hippies. Old-timers who worked on the oil rigs have that delicate balance of rural coarse and soft. I see people that I know in this book because of the way the characters talk. I know the kinds of places the stories take place in. Birthday parties where the whole family gets together and old grudges and awkwardnesses come up and some people get accidentally too high and their siblings judge them. Gentrifying neighbourhoods where regular sixty year-old alcoholics brush shoulders with hip thirty-year-old gay men whom they feel threatened by and put down with homophobic insults referencing the justice of AIDS. I hesitate to write this because it’s cheesy, but these stories are just so real.
In short, Canary is the best new Canadian fiction I’ve read this year. Pick it up, and pick it up now.