Bad Things Happen by Kris Bertin

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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!

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17 thoughts on “Bad Things Happen by Kris Bertin

  1. susanosborne55 says:

    I’ve spent years avoiding short stories apart from, like you, occasionally dipping my toe in the linked variety but after reading Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women last year I’ve been persuaded – not a raging convert, though. I think I’d like this collection, too. Do you think you’ll read more, Naomi?

  2. Debbie Rodgers @Exurbanis says:

    It’s been a sparse year for me for great reading. Last month I read Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush but didn’t care for it even though I generally like short stories (and, as you know, the book was nominated for all three.of Canada’s biggest literary prizes).

    Maybe I’ll tryBad Things Happen!

  3. whatmeread says:

    I have loved some short story collections, but mostly I feel ambivalent about them. If I love them, I want to read more, but often I feel like something is missing.

    • Naomi says:

      I usually feel the same way, Kay. That’s why I’m so happy I have found some to like. I may be finding a place for them in my reading life. They’re good for times that I feel distracted or too busy to sit down and read for big chunks of time.

  4. FictionFan says:

    I think there’s a major upsurge in short story writing at the moment after a few decades of it really being a pretty marginalised form. Like you, I’ve tended to avoid them but I’ve read a few great collections recently – Ken Kalfus has two, PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, and Coup de Foudre. Not sure they’re your type of thing despite the great writing – he tends to have quite a high political content, though fundamentally they are always about humanity and have quite a lot of humour, too. You might like Rebecca Burns’ The Settling Earth, though – interlinked stories about the first female settlers to New Zealand. Beautifully written and with a high emotional content, but not at all mawkish or manipulative.

    • Naomi says:

      I find that a lot of novelists around here also have a short story collection (or two) that came out first. Which kind of makes sense, I guess.
      The Settling Earth *does* sound like something I’d like. Thanks for the suggestion! 🙂

  5. The Cue Card says:

    Bad Things Happen sounds like a relevant title considering the election. Every once in awhile I’ll appreciate a good collection of short stories like those of Alice Munro’s or there’s one by Tim Winton called The Turning which is good. The Bertin book sounds like one worth exploring. thx

    • Naomi says:

      I hadn’t even thought about how apt the title is right now. Anyone who reads this book will probably end up feeling better about their own lives, anyway!
      I still haven’t read anything by Tim Winton – will keep him in mind!

  6. buriedinprint says:

    Maybe it’s a little of both, that you are warming up to the idea (I really do think they require a slightly different reading muscle) and also that you’ve chosen some solid and enticing collections. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a collection from Biblioasis that I didn’t think was worthwhile, even though some of them “speak” to me more directly than others. (And you already know that I loved The Party Wall, of course. So so so so good.) Do you have some others in the stack for future reading? Or any particular authors you’re aiming for? I’m tossing around possibilities for a new-Alice-Munro-Reading-Project, now that I’ve finished all of hers (and am not quite ready to reread them all yet).

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t have anymore in my physical stack *right now*, but that doesn’t mean that one won’t all-of-a-sudden show up. 🙂
      I don’t feel like I know enough about short stories and their writers to recommend any to you for your project, but I’m curious to see who you decide on. If I come across any ideas, I’ll let you know!

      P.S. I love your thoughtful comments. 🙂

  7. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I’ve always been a short story fan but I don’t read too many of them – probably one or two collections a year. And usually the great stories in a bunch will skew it for me to rate a collection higher overall. I am a huge fan of Munro, George Saunders (although I’ve only read the Tenth of December,) and Carol Shields’ short stories. This review made me think of Jess Walter’s collection We Live in Water, which is AMAZING and focuses on characters who live on the “fringes” of society.

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