I’ve had a hankering for more Chad Pelley since reading his two novels last year, Away From Everywhere and Every Little Thing. His short story collection, Four-Letter Words has been shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction for the 2017 Atlantic Book Awards. It’s up against two other collections I’ve read this year; Bad Things Happen by Kris Bertin and Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush by Kerry Lee Powell. I thought all three collections were fantastic – the judges have a tough job.
In this collection of stories, Pelley’s characters are all “haunted by one four-letter word or another: love, hate, lust, or loss… Whether documenting the ways in which we become obsessed with our current situation or our fascination with the lives we could have lived, these stories, told in Pelley s decidedly contemporary style, form unique portraits of how we are led astray and how we often find ourselves at a crossroads, uncertain and entirely lost.”
There was not one story in this collection that I didn’t enjoy. Some were stranger than others, some were sadder than others, some more meaningful, but all were captivating. And every one of them managed to suck me in from the very first sentence or paragraph.
In Where To Look, a young boy believes his father’s recent death is just another one of his pranks; his best one yet.
My father isn’t dead. There was no overturned kayak. No bloated body dangling upside-down, with its limbs spinning around and around like a ceiling fan, into the sway of the sea. There was no salt in his eyes, no cold creaking in his bones. There were no fish biting at him as he hung like easy bait. He’s not dead, because a man like my father doesn’t drown. A man like my father grows gills in a survival situation. Or he grabs a whale and he uses it like a scuba tank, sucking the oxygen out of the blowhole. A man like my father would punch a hole in the ocean floor, and it would drain like bathwater.
In Burning the Night Black, a man thinks back on his long list of “what-ifs” that might have prevented the accident that killed his son and severely injured his wife.
Geoff had a drink the night of the accident. Just one. But still. He has a list of things that could have gone differently, and that tall glass of wine is on it. He could have stayed where he was a little longer – it was a family dinner, it was Easter Sunday, so what was the rush? Or he could have left a little sooner, caught the start of the game on his own couch at home. There was a truck, and it was going to tear through that intersection, at exactly 8:03, and he didn’t have to be there.
In Before I Was Me, one of my favourites, a man is writing to a girl he once knew; how he remembers her when they knew each other in High School, and what he thinks her life might have been like had she lived.
I saw your mother in the grocery store the other day, looking lost in the bakery aisle. She had a loaf of bread in her hand, holding it by the twist-tie end of the bag, so it was swaying back and forth like a pendulum, the way you must have been swaying when she walked into the shed that day, looking for a gardening tool or whatever. Thinking you were at school, finding missing angles in triangles, and passing notes to Jen B about boys, music, weekend plans.
You acted like we only get one wick in this life, and it should never get windy.
In other stories: A hitman falls in love with his target, a man clings desperately to a buoy while thinking about his wife and daughter, a man sends his daughter on “errands” so he can have private time with with Jimmy, a couple of con artists go too far and now one of them is trying to run away from her guilt, a boy tries to dig to China because his dead father told him it was possible, a Jewish woman tells us about the downfalls of playing Santa, and a man who is having problems with rowdy teenagers on his property finds out how quickly things can go tragically wrong.
A favourite line: It’s like he’d plugged himself into the world, and a hundred volts of its beauty and sadness coursed through his arteries instead of blood.