Although David Bezmozgis has been on the Giller list before (with Free World in 2011 and The Betrayers in 2014), this is the first of his books I’ve read. And the only short story collection on the shortlist this year.
(Here is my chance to put a plug in for K.D. Miller’s Late Breaking – another short story collection I would love to have seen on the shortlist.)
Not only did I find his writing style engaging, it was my first experience reading about the Latvian Jewish community. David Bezmozgis himself was born in Riga, Latvia.
The title story, Immigrant City, was probably my favourite. I could connect to the narrator who is the father of three young daughters – one of which loves to go with him everywhere. He doesn’t hesitate to take her across the city of Toronto on the subway to find a used door to match his car. “Didn’t every kind of flotsam wash up on the blasted shores of the Internet, including a black 2012 Toyota Highlander front passenger-side door? Indeed, there was one, offered for sale by Mohamed Abdi Mohamed of Rexdale.”
I love the image of the father and daughter riding home again on the subway; one carrying a car door and one wearing a hijab (given to the daughter by Mohamed’s wife).
In an immigrant city, a city of innumerable struggles and ambitions, a white man with a car door and a daughter wearing a blue hijab attract less attention than you might expect.
In Little Rooster, the narrator finds letters – written in Russian and Yiddish – that belonged to his grandfather, ten years after his death. The letters lead the narrator on a hunt to discover what secrets are hidden inside.
I reflected on the tortuous circumstances that had brought us together. Something had happened a long time ago between people who were no longer alive and whom we would be the last to know. For flawed and powerful reasons, we assigned too much importance to it, even as we didn’t really know what it was.
In Childhood, a father is taking his son to have medical tests done. At times he finds it difficult to focus on all the great things his son can do, rather than the ones he cannot. (“… why his son so often seemed like a mystery to him, felt like a personal failing. He pictures the trunk of a tall, broad oak. This was how a father’s love should be. His was wrapped in creeping vines.“) While at the appointment, the father is reminded of his own childhood.
They were boys and girls often left to their own devices, pulled daily into the evolving drama of the street. They called each other friends, but it was friendship marred by intrigue, jealousy, mockery, and distrust. He didn’t know why it was like that. Maybe it was immigrant. Maybe it was Soviet.
The longest story in the collection, A New Gravestone for an Old Grave, involves a father/son generation gap – a clash of the old ways with the new. The son agrees to take a detour from his vacation with friends to travel to Latvia to oversee the installation of his grandfather’s new gravestone. It is clearly more important and urgent to his father than it is to him.
He had returned to the city of his birth, but no place had ever seemed less familiar.
Many of us know well the places we’re born and the places we live now, and our thoughts are still full of the possibilities of alternate lives (well, at least mine is). Imagine if we had a whole other life in another country to add to those possibilities?
The graves evoked in him a peculiar timbre of grief – grief over not what he had lost but over what he had never had.