Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush was longlisted for the Giller Prize, is a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. So, of course I had to read it.
As I have mentioned before, I prefer novels to short stories. However, short stories have their place in my life, and I love it when I discover a collection that has me turning the pages. There are collections that are good but start to feel same-y, and there are collections that have you looking forward to the next story before you’ve even finished the one you’re reading. That was this book. The writing and the variety of stories was fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.
I made notes and jotted down passages from every story in this book, but I fear I would be typing forever if I talked about all 15 stories. So, some highlights…
In a Kingdom Beneath the Sea, the narrator observes the other characters around her. She is one of the older strippers in this seedy joint, and if she can’t keep the weight off, she’ll be on her way out soon, making way for the younger slimmer women. One of the new girls has an admirer; someone who wants to save her from herself. But her brothers have a stake in her ‘career’ and are guarding her every move. “Today’s the day Mitchell Burnhope gets the royal shit kicked out of him.”
The title story, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, was inspired by de Kooning’s “Woman” series of paintings. A couple goes on vacation to L.A.. Boyd loves it but his girlfriend, the narrator, does not; specifically the mega roller coaster she felt obligated to go on. At the airport, on the way home, a man attacks Boyd out of the blue. He insists that he is okay, so they board the plane and fly home. But, as time goes on, it becomes apparent that he is not okay. His girlfriend feels guilty and responsible as though she was the one who conjured up the attacker to “punish Boyd for being so annoying“. Boyd begins acting very strangely, and his girlfriend feels powerless, like she is drowning in the “ugliness”.
Things happen and can’t unhappen.
The incandescent lights in her nightmares began to leach into her waking hours, filling them with slashes of violent colour. As if a screen had been pulled to one side, instead of suburban streets she now saw primal violence, in the snarling grilles of oncoming traffic, in the sharp angles of buildings and the sudden movements of strangers. Why would anyone pay to go on a roller coaster when this restless malevolence was everywhere to be had for free?
The narrator in There Are Two Pools You May Drink From has wandered far and wide over the years since high school. She hasn’t kept in touch with anyone. But she’s finally given up on the idea that there’s a “mythical place where I’ll find everlasting happiness“, and she’s gone on a journey to hunt down those “hazy figures from my past” in order to “make peace with my former self“. Most of the story takes place at Lindy’s house as the narrator remembers back to when they were girls. Lindy, who she was always so jealous of, but who, unlike her, has lived a quiet stationary life.
But looking at Lindy I see for a moment, as if through a chink in a stone wall, how it is possible to keep steady while the hands travel across the clock’s face, how the smallest variations in the yard might give comfort as the years pass, why children beg to be told the same story again and again.
How far will Christoff go in The Spirit of Things to get away from life with his father?
Sometimes Christoff stuffed cotton wool in his ears to shut him out, but his father’s voice was nearly always ringing in his head, long before the real shouting started, and long after it stopped.
In Property of Fatty, Calvin’s life is goes from bad to worse when he hastily decides to go on “vacation” with some guy he met at the Boogaloo; a guy who thinks “You can tell a lot about people by the shape of their ass… It’s like a second face.”
All the characters in Scenes of Acapulco seem messed-up or unhappy. Bonnie and Troy are getting married; Bonnie’s friend tells her Troy is dumb, while Troy’s buddy tells him Bonnie’s a sneak. You can’t help but think the marriage will never make it, especially after you find out what really went on all those years ago when Bonnie disappeared.
In Social Studies, Ada gets a job in a dingy bar where the customers do their best to make her want to run for the hills like the many bartenders before her.
In Vulnerable Adults, Lauren realizes that, like her, her husband Jacko is feeling ‘stuck’ “… scared of descending into the underworld, but just as terrified of whatever might be wandering vicious and free on the surface.”
Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush is one of the two short story collections on the Giller longlist this year, the other being The Two of Us by Kathy Page. (my review) Two strong collections coming from opposite sides of the country. If you love short stories (or even if you don’t), you will not want to miss these.
“This is fiction’s ‘unflinching eye’ at its most powerful, the gaze that spies out the heartbreaking cycle of human cruelty and refuses to look away. A reader might buckle under the weight of the world portrayed if it weren’t for the beauty of the prose itself, the imagery that rings on in the subconscious long after the closing line.” Alissa York, author of Fauna and The Naturalist
“What the reader will find in Powell’s stories is a deep and abiding care, for language, in the zinging comic exchange that never misses a beat; for imagery, in the clarity that emerges out of a grey background, tough and fragile but impossible to ignore; for all her lost, ragged characters, in their struggle to get back to some misplaced sense of home. These are beautiful stories, they will make you think and they will make you feel and they will always, always reward your attention.” Alexander MacLeod, author of Light Lifting
A review in the National Post says of Kerry Lee Powell’s stories that ” it is impossible to pick a crown jewel. Each one feels like the favourite until the next.“ I couldn’t agree more.
Kerry Lee Powell on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, on writing about trauma.
“I would say that my biggest preoccupation as a writer has been with trauma, and more importantly with surviving trauma.”
Kerry Lee Powell’s website, where you can read more about this book as well as her poetry collections.
26 thoughts on “Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell”
I tend to read very few short stories compared to novels, but these have really caught my attention. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a De Kooning painting, and the passage you’ve quoted could well be a description of that very moment!
I don’t know very much about his art (although I now know a lot more than I did before – not from the book but from looking him up *because* of the book), but I did think that quote was very fitting. I’m glad I’ve enticed you. 🙂
Great review, Naomi. Like you I’ve been a reluctant short story reader for most of my reading life but have recently had something of a conversion. This collection sounds particularly tempting. On the list it goes!
Good to hear! 🙂
Glad this one worked for you! And I agree with your comment on short stories sometimes feeling turning into a sameness. Short stories are difficult for me and there have only been a few collections that have really stood out overall (Beneath the Bonfire by Nicholas Butler and Why They Run the Way They Do by Susan Perabo).
My favourite one last year was Eating habits of the Chronically Lonesome by Megan Gail Coles, in case you’re interested. I do find them good to read when life is too busy to concentrate on a novel (which doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes…). I think I have Beneath the Bonfire on my list – I remember it being a blogger favourite not too long ago (last year?).
Oooh, I love fiction by poets! This is a great review, Naomi!
I do, too. Thanks! 🙂
This is shallow but I hate the title and cover of this collection! My reading of the Kobo preview was okay, but not enough to convince me. Though I am enjoying short stories lately. Though I heard that interview on The Next Chapter and found that interesting.
Haha. I kind of feel the same way about the cover and the title – maybe not as strongly as you – but I couldn’t resist when it showed up on all 3 prize lists. Also, she lives in New Brunswick now. 🙂
Some of her writing made a little more sense to me after I heard that interview.
I saw that you liked the Jean Rhys stories – I’m going to watch for more of her books at book sales.
Is there an underlying theme to these short stories? In general, I like short story collections from different authors better, but since reading Almost Famous Women last year, I am more open to a collection of stories by the same author. But even then, I like when there’s something connecting the stories. (Boy, do I sound picky…!)
No, I get it! My favourite are stories that are linked in some way. I almost consider them on a different level altogether. I’d say the main theme in this book is that most of these characters are outsiders looking in. Some of them are searching for some kind of connection, but some really didn’t even seem to be doing that; like they were past that point.
Naomi well-done!! Your review has me investigating De Kooning again. I admire his art & very much appreciate Kerry Lee Powell’s voice. She’ll be wonderful to watch continue writing (& for me to keep reading). I wish I was a short story fan but…only at times. The connecting thread help readers like me. As a bookseller I know short stories have a very specific but loyal following. Great review, thank you!! K
Well, now you know you can recommend this one without having to read it yourself! I’m kind of hoping that because she went from poetry to short stories, that next she’ll write a novel. 🙂
Sounds great! I have a mixed reaction to short story collections – when they work they’re great, but that feeling of sameness does tend to run through a lot of them. Good to hear this one is an exception.
Yes, this one kept me entertained. At times, it’s rather morbid, but that doesn’t bother me. 🙂
You’ve been on a good streak with these short stories. I have read quite a few this year and more keep releasing that I want to read. The last review request I accepted for the year (and probably for a while after that) was a short story collection.
All these stories sound so interesting. This collection sounds like a winner and the National Post agrees.
I *have* been on a short story streak, and I have one more to go – coming up soon, I hope! Then I will be back to mostly novels, maybe a few novellas in November (one of which I requested from the library after reading the review on your blog). 🙂
ah girl! nothing like a great read to keep ‘crazy at bay!’
This sounds a bit strange and dark to me! Like TJ, I like short stories to be connected, although I think I prefer collections all by one author. I find that they’re less hit or miss for me.
I prefer connections, too, which is why I was surprised by how much I liked these.
Short story collections always have me wondering how the writer comes up with them all!
I noted this passage as well: “Things happen and can’t unhappen.” Even though I’ve only read a couple of stories from this collection (and a couple from Kathy Page’s), that phrase – so simple but harbouring such complexity – strikes me hard. Your enthusiasm for this collection has convinced me to return to it another time (when not so overwhelmed with other books in the stacks). Thanks, Naomi: great review!
Due dates are a huge bummer, and can dampen the enthusiasm for any book!
I really wish things could “unhappen”…
Great review. I have read Two pools you may drink from earlier. I loved that story. I felt she captured all the details so well.
It’s good to hear from someone who has read one of her stories! Now you know there’s a whole collection. 🙂