Look at the cover of this book. It couldn’t be more stunning.
With stories to match.
Peninsula Sinking is David Huebert‘s first short story collection. He has won the CBC Short Story Prize, the Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize, and the Walrus Poetry Prize, and is the author of one poetry collection We Are No Longer the Smart Kids in Class (which I haven’t read).
David Huebert’s stories are some of the best I’ve read. Here is a taste of all eight of them…
I read Enigma when David Huebert won the 2016 CBC Short Story Prize with this story. It’s about the grief of losing a beloved animal. What I love about this story is how well the reader is able to feel the woman’s attachment to her horse and the very real grief she feels. Huebert explains in an interview with CBC that it even comes between the woman and her boyfriend: “What I really wanted to capture was a couple in love who come across this moment where their empathy cannot do its work — where empathy is basically unachievable. And grief often does that.”
The other thing I love about this story, and most of his others, is that animals are included as integral characters. As Alexander MacLeod says on the back of the book, “This book is Noah’s freaking ark. All of life, animal and human, is intimately crammed insude of it and the whole vessel has been expertly designed to stand the surrounding storm.”
Serge is saying maybe spend the night at home. Serge is saying ‘Heather it’s been four days’ and maybe he’s right, maybe it would be good for me but there is nothing to convince me to leave this trailer at the barn with its yellowing curtains and coffee-stained fold-down linoleum table. There is nothing to convince me to leave the horse I’ve spent ten years of my life with, the horse I’ve known longer than Serge and differently. The horse that has sensed the subtleties of me body – a nervous twitch, a feint of the reins, a remote fatigue in a calf muscle. The enigma I have known in ways otherwise unknowable.
Maxi is an inmate at a women’s prison in Nova Scotia who has attracted the attention of one of the prison workers. But Judy knows it’s impossible – the possibility of them. Probably the most haunting story in the book, Judy grew up with a sick mother and lecherous father. Her pet is a 90 pound boa constrictor which she fantasizes about letting go free. When feeding her snake a mouse, she thinks, “The mouse is so lucky to die there, in the midst of all that power, in the steady clutch of this beautiful serpent.”
When her mother was sick with polio and in the hospital encapsulated in her iron lung, Judy asked her if she ever wanted to escape, she told her daughter that the iron lung “… felt good. Said sometimes it’s nice to lie immobile, sometimes it’s nice to be contained. She said she had always felt she was drifting and fragile and sick. But now she was held by this iron embrace and she felt safe. Safe and, strangely, loved.”
On the way to work I crack the Buick’s window and light a smoke as I drive past rows of quiet farms, the fields not yet frozen but close. A fierce wind whips through the car, carrying the ocean’s chill. Half an hour in all directions and you can still taste the Atlantic from this town in the middle of the peninsula. The Mi’kmaq named this place “Wagobagitik,” meaning “end of the water’s flow,” and now and then I think of all the flows that have ended here, all the things that have sat stagnant in this place where wind and water come to rest.
In two days Miles is due to head back underwater in a submarine (“a giant black tampon wearing an adorable top hat”) for 105 days. His mother died of Botox a few months ago, he thinks of his father as “the old Nazi”, and that night he gets drunk enough to go home with a blind man who keeps pigeons, one of which is named Rex Murphy.
While under, listening to the whales is what saves him. “Often he begins by reading and ends up just lying there, thinking. Thinking about the whales lying curious in the baffles of the Atlantis, calling and calling and wondering why this strange creature with the boxy dorsal won’t answer.”
Mostly he sees deflation. Libidos sublimated into endless crunches, twisted into the mirror-bright polish of the control room floor. Men sagging like the string they tie between racks. String that starts taut at the surface and gradually slackens as the Atlantis travels deeper and deeper. A hundred metres, two hundred, three. Mostly Miles sees submariners growing paler and paler until he’s sure he can see down through them. Sure that if they took their shirts off he would see their stuttering hearts.
And by Limousines, the author means cattle. In Limousines a couple gets married in the thick humidity of an oncoming storm, in the mud of a farm while the deadstock truck comes to pick up two reeking Holsteins that are waiting behind the pig barn. The couple have trouble conceiving, while all around them procreation is the priority.
Oh, and there are two cats named Cat Stevens and Margaret Catwood.
Below, the Holsteins plod through their private, outdoor lives. Some of them loafing about, some of them eating, most lying down to sleep. One of them groans and I wonder what she’s saying. Is she lost or lonely? Does she miss her calf? Or is she just saying hello, just sending her voice into the world? Whatever she’s saying, I can’t imagine not hearing it. Can’t imagine looking out this window and not seeing cows in the pasture. Can’t and don’t want to imagine growing up on a farm with no hulking shadows lurking through the dark.
Julie is shopping at the Queen Street Sobeys in Halifax when she hears the announcement over the PA about the Westray Mine Disaster. Except, at this point, no one yet knows the outcome. As she waits for answers about her brother who was working at the mine that day, she remembers the day her brother had a bike accident on a hot summer day on their way for a swim at Chocolate lake.
Franz overcooks the tenderloin and they eat dinner early, hunched around the television, still desperate for news and getting nothing. The meat is chewy with too much savoury glaze but Julie insists that they eat the whole thing. She and the boys sit wordless at the table listening to the radio, chewing slow and dutiful, jaws tired. She keeps chewing long after Franz and the boys have given up, their brows brailled with sweat. Julie eats that Sobeys pork like secular eucharist, eats as if all her love for her brother were bent into this task, eats until the plate is bare and pink and her husband’s eyes are a bluster of worry.
How Your Life
How Your Life is one of my favourite stories in the collection, partly because it’s written in second person, which seems to give an urgent and intimate feel to the story.
Tell me you don’t want to keep reading after the first paragraph…
This is how your life has been lately: you go for an evening jog because your body has become a cellulite farm on account of binge drinking and late-night poutine and no word of a lie an owl swoops down and clutches your head. As if the whole lung-burning, tit-lurching experience wasn’t enough without some yellow-eyed demon descending out of the full moon as your huffing through Point Pleasant. You’re listening to Katy so you don’t hear a thing and then there are claws in your head and a nursing home smell and something is trying to fly away with your skull. You’re swatting your head and hitting feathers and talons and the deranged animal which is probably rabid starts flapping and making weird bird noises that are not scary-cute Halloween hoos until finally you collapse on the ground and rip off one of your shoes and start going batshit. Your peripherals catch someone rushing to your rescue and you think no it can’t be and then yes of course it’s the hot butcher from the market and you’re thinking, ‘that’s right I am swinging a sneaker at my own head right now’.
There’s a crunching noise and a burn worse than a bikini wax and when you look up and an enormous owl is flying away holding a ribboning clump of your hair. The hair you spent 200 dollars on yesterday. The hair that causes strangers to ask “where are you from?” and mean “I’m having trouble placing you racially.”
There is also a kitten in this story, and one of my favourite lines.
Ariel play-bites your thumb and you stroke her unfairly soft main, then move to the neck, your whole life diluting in the ocean of her purr.
There are horses and squirrels in this story, about a 7-month pregnant woman who drinks too much one night and is wracked with guilt over it. She wants to tell her husband about it, but can’t.
She dreams about babies and horses and horse babies and babies with tails. She thinks about horses while having sex… and while giving birth. But my favourite part in this story is about the baby squirrels that she saves from her boss.
Imagine there is a little writhing cluster of starving infant squirrels. Imagine they are hideous, like tiny red-eyed wingless bats. Then imagine your superior raises his Rockport and brings the heel down while Denise cackles behind him, her canines dark with lipstick smear. What compassionate person would not tell Chad that he is filth, that he is a cold sore on the mouth of the human species?
Peninsula Sinking is made up of three parts – Bellyflop, Silicone Giddy and Suture – three phases of Gavin’s life. In Bellyflop, Gavin and his friends are teens, up to ordinary teen stuff. Mostly. Until the day Gavin found a blue vibrator (“Blue Velvet”) in Theo’s mother’s dresser and ran down the street with it waving it around. After, he felt ashamed and wanted badly to apologize to Nancy, but couldn’t. Instead he did things to (sort of) punish himself. Including following up on a dare to climb the radio tower, for which he became a Chronicle Herald legend.
Fifteen years later, in Silicone Giddy, Gavin and his buddies are together again in Toronto for Theo’s wedding. They get drunk, they discuss the past and the future, try to convince Gavin to move away from Halifax so he can start his “real life”.
He says that by 2100 the sea level may rise six feet, which would be enough to basically drown Halifax. The good news is that with violent, unpredictable new storm systems moving north and rivers flooding all over, the oil economy may not even make it to 2100. “But basically,” he says, “Halifax is a sinking peninsula.” I am thinking that even this, in its way, is beautiful… I’m staring at an eggs Florentine, last night’s IPA swirling in my guts, and I’m thinking about water, thinking about water and storms and sinking buildings. I’m thinking Venice, thinking Manhattan, thinking Halifax, imagining all these coastal cities a century from now – concrete pillars sprouting out of water, hives of algae and barnacles, the salt gnawing their walls and the current buckling their foundations. I see the tide creeping up over Citadel Hill, swallowing the old town clock and the ceremonial cannons. I picture the cobblestone walkway of Lower Water Street, entirely subsumed. What would it be like to swim my old neighbourhood, to dive down and see the underwater mailboxes and hydrants and parking lots, knowing each curve and corner of the ocean floor?
When I get home I will dive head-first into the cold water of the North Atlanitc. I will feel the sand saturating the water as it kicks back from the surf. The sea will rub the sand against my body like softest pestle, grinding the mortar of me, and I will be happy and moving and tortured and alive. Because if this peninsula is going to sink, I am going to sink with it.
Gavin is still preoccupied with Nancy and the Blue Velvet incident.
Still: this awkwardness in me. This physiological kidney stone of shame. This complete cowardly inanity. I want nothing more than to cower before Nancy, bare the foul cavities of my soul and beg her forever-forgiveness. But that is something I will never do. That is something for which I do not have the marrow.
Suture: Fast-forward to Gavin living in an apartment in downtown Halifax with his girlfriend, Zara. They have gotten a dog, Ezra – a Jack Russel mix – and are in on-going discussions about whether or not to neuter him. Gavin finds out that Nancy has Alzheimer’s which saddens him. But happily he has Zara and Ezra; Ezra who they adore like a baby, who they coddle and snuggle, who sent them into torment when a bike ran over his tail and joy when watching him run around with a stick. They are going to be alright.
She says they will be alright, that things will change and things will stay the same but life is astonishing. She tells him life will churn on and there’s no way to know what will happen, let alone control it… She tells him things will flourish and things will melt. That nothing will be the same but she will protect him. She will hold him against the tidal drone and the vanishing whales and the waters rising to subsume them. Guard him from the acid ocean gnawing the soft sandstone of this peninsula.
I’m already looking forward to whatever David Huebert writes next!
Review at Bibliotaphs (where you can find a cute picture of the author with his baby)