After a moment, all he managed to say was bad things happen. It meant nothing to me, but he seemed to be satisfied with it, like that explained everything.
Last month, I read two short story collections from the Giller Prize longlist. I enjoyed both of them, but also mentioned that story collections aren’t usually my thing (unless they’re linked). So, why did I want to read this book?
- Kris Bertin is from New Brunswick and he lives in Halifax. That’s enough to get me curious. He has worked a wide range of interesting jobs, which I’m sure provided much inspiration for these stories.
- The title makes me want to know: What bad things?
- The book has some pretty great blurbs: David Adams Richards calls Bertin’s stories a “revelation and a triumph“, Michael Christie describes them as “fiercely told, sharply described, bitterly funny, and unexpectedly moving“, and Amy Jones says they are “astonishingly well-crafted“. Not bad for a debut.
- The premise: “The characters in Bad Things Happen—professors, janitors, webcam models, small-time criminals—are between things. Between jobs and marriages, states of sobriety, joy and anguish; between who they are and who they want to be. Kris Bertin’s unforgettable debut introduces us to people at the tenuous moment before everything in their lives changes, for better or worse.“
- This review in Atlantic Books Today which peels away the layers of Bertin’s stories.
Did I like it? I have found myself another winner. Either I am really starting to get into this short story thing, or I really know how to pick ’em. The thing about these stories and these characters is that you’d be tempted to say these people are out-of-the-ordinary down on their luck, on the very fringes of society. But I would argue that they reflect the all-too-common lives of so many people; small-time criminals, addicts, the mentally ill, and the destitute. And, through these characters, Bertin shows us that 1) there is always more than one side to every story, 2) the direction of our lives can be determined by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and 3) most people are trying to do better, be better, and have better lives. Some are just better at it than others.
I think about how everything is really just a bunch of yeses and noes, from cave people to your grandparents, all the way down to right now.
Kris Bertin’s prose is sharp and compelling, and he grabs you at the beginning of each story with some great first lines.
When we broke into his house, it was the middle of the afternoon, so it felt like we weren’t doing anything illegal.
There are two kinds of emptiness. The one I had, and the one I needed.
We evict Champ first because we’re worried he’ll kill us.
He’s smiling, but smiling too hard, like his teeth are going to shatter.
I have jotted down a lot of notes from each story. To simplify, and to get my thoughts on this book finally out into the world, I’ll leave you with passages from a few of my favourites.
In Make Your Move, a man is taken through a series of what-ifs:
Let’s say, though, that you don’t hang onto the hundred dollar bill. You get caught up in the moment and want to be a big shot, so you give it to the drive-thru girl who looks like your aunt, slip the money to her like it’s no big deal. You don’t really think it through, and you momentarily forget that you’re the guy driving the limo, not the guy in the back of it, not the guy with money and class and complimentary champagne. The look she gives you is so sexy that something misfires in your brain and you forget that you need this money, you really do, and instead you say keep the change.
In The Narrow Passage, a man is trying to hold down a job as a garbage collector, but it is proving to be a challenge:
Richard had worked past the pain, like he figured Gene must have, but he almost couldn’t cope with the smell. It stayed with him even after he changed and cleaned, even though his wife said she could smell nothing on him. He learned it was something that was still inside him when he made a tiny cone out of toilet paper to scour the insides of his nostrils with. He understood that he was taking it home with himself, in little pieces, particles that were hiding wherever they could.
In Is Alive and Can Move, a janitor at the University is trying to keep it together:
When I look back I know I was acting that way because I refused to take the pills they said I needed after my hospital stay. I thought refusing them would make me stronger, that if I could get through on my own, it would be for the better. And so in that state, thinking about what the bricks and the kids and the wall meant kind of made me decide things I shouldn’t have. Like that the building was alive. That it made you a part of itself or else punished you if you didn’t go along.
In The Story Here, a woman invites her father to stay/hide at her house after he leaves his wife:
He can’t decide if he wants to start a fight about it or not, so it’s all just jokes for now. It’s halfway sweet that he feels the need to protect me from my own father. And halfway insulting. I get mad at him for getting mad and pretending he’s not. I do it by pretending I’m not.
They are both alike and unalike, and give each other a wide berth, aware of each other and their respective positions. They occupy the same physical space, but at different times. You see this stuff in nature documentaries.
In Your #1 Killer, a mother doesn’t know what to do about her son who has come home after being away but stays hidden away in their house. He finally takes a shine to a questionable and concerning activity:
I tell him I’m proud of him, but proud isn’t the right word at all. It’s more like less-worried-but-not-by-much.
What great short story collections have you read lately?
Thank you to Biblioasis for sending me a copy of this book for review!