Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Soft Explosions of Life

Jim Bartley reviews Amy Jones' What Boys Like in today's Globe:

There are prose styles that create a convincing world – the minimum expectation from a work of fiction – while offering the bonus pleasure of observing the author's prowess with language. We can gladly accept the show-off factor, provided it enhances the overall experience.

Then there is prose that operates more purely, a quietly expressive vehicle, while the expert word-wrangling remains veiled. The artistry hides itself. Amy Jones excels at the prose of invisible labour. In the best of this debut collection, her writing reads like understanding – as if there's no gap between the words and what they make you perceive. The top 10 of these 15 tales would make a book that is close to perfect.

In A Good Girl, we meet Alex, 32. He’s a waiter and friends with Yousef, 45, his boss. They drink after hours, play music, talk about getting laid, take reckless jaunts out of Halifax Harbour on Yousef's boat. One night, Alex leaves his wallet in a bar, which leads to him spending a rum-soaked night with Leah, 18. Next day, on hearing the news, Yousef grabs Alex’s face between his hands and crows, “You're my fucking hero” – and we instantly see what anchors their friendship. How ordinary this scenario would be if the players were all nondescriptly thirtysomething. Jones loads her exposition with intrigue.

In the first four pages, these three already feel like people you’ve come to know and size up over a boozy weekend at a friend’s cottage. A large part of it is the dialogue. It’s as tight and precise as it can be without being telegraphic. While the characters are sniping and equivocating with their arch, as-if-I-care one-liners, we’re adding up the snippets that reveal inner selves and form the big picture. When Leah says, “I'm going to be a hair model,” it's the capstone on all we’ve been made to guess about her. When Alex says, “Too soon,” it distills the rivalrous camaraderie he shares with Yousef. When the tale ends with a one-word reply – Leah, at a costume party, saying, “Myself” – there’s a delicious moment of suspension before you feel the rush of meanings hit head and heart at the same time.

How to Survive Summer in the City presents a pubescent girl at the mercy of her alcoholic single mother. Again, dialogue leads the way, pulling us expertly into the sad dance of a mother's neglect, her child cast as ongoing babysitter.

One Last Thing melds the death of Kurt Cobain with a runaway teen and her sister’s refusal to chase after her one more time. Through the sister’s voice of desperation, Jones gives herself permission to stray onto the page. “I can't tell this story any more. Not like this.” She tests a more writerly tone: “We searched for you … a journey that was mapped out in the skin cells on the backs of our necks, steps ingrained in the muscular memory of our calves.” The authorial self-reference undermines the stark power of the tale, but the finale, putting us back into events, comes with a gratifying punch.

Miriam Beachwalker offers a seeking adolescent, sick of her carping mom and her own inertia. She will leave Halifax and reinvent herself. The farthest she gets is the beach, where she happens on a gay couple, sunning. Next day, Josh and Paul are back in the same spot. Miriam and Josh discover a rapport, and Miriam, being the needy party, over-invests in it. When the guys necessarily go missing, Miriam is left to write an involuntary love note in the sand, while her autistic little brother hurls himself along the shore with a kite. The piece wonderfully integrates plot, characters and imagery in a parable of inchoate longing.

A few tales feel hastily assembled, ramping up into unlikely dramas or coasting on quirk. Post Mortem inserts a car-crash decapitation in place of subtler violence; The Church of Latter-day Peaches overextends its tone of macabre whimsy.

Dead centre in the book is the quietly riveting, finally heart-battering Twelve Weeks. A young woman, possibly ill, returns to her father’s house after five years away. They don’t speak much. We gradually learn why. In the simplest sense (not to give an iota away), their problem is that they’ve both lived – and as we know, in life there are losses and regrets. Things change. Such easily known truths, but Amy Jones makes you know them like soft explosions at your core.

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