Thirteen loosely connected stories of rural Canada less about sex and death than about everything else.
The Manitoba-born Patterson (a memoir, The Water In Between, 2000) often delivers miniature essays amid his stories on subjects as far-ranging as emperor penguins and the utilitarian aesthetics of rope, while a consistent theme is the emotional cabin fever that’s as much a result of the landscape of the title as it is of a standard and familiar domesticity. The people here are as likely to reach out to others as they are to turn on one another. “Gabriella: Parts One and Two” is about an ex-soldier who finds himself sharing an apartment with two Spanish women—in a story that aspires to realism by going nowhere. “Saw Marks” is the frailest of plot adumbrations hung on a piece of seemingly straight nonfiction about man’s prehistory in the Serengeti. In “The Perseid Shower,” a boy’s generalized disappointment with his father finds its focus in dad’s preoccupation with incinerator drums, model airplanes, and the yearly meteor shower. And “Insomnia, Infidelity, and the Leopard Seal” is a lesson on mood disorders as manifested in a character’s sleep deprivation—and before it cures our insomnia we’re sure to find out what happens to those emperor penguins. Patterson’s attempt to tie his pieces together by ending each with “This was in 1980” or “This was in 2004,” etc., gives a feeling that each story amounts to a kind of journal entry: the connected-story premise disconnects, and one wishes that Patterson’s talent for disparate narrative voices were hung on a strategy less flimsy. Still, sometimes the static voice of essay comes to stand perfectly for these people and this place: “A static structure bears perpendicular surfaces well. The column reliably supports loads only when vertical and straight; when gravity is the only antagonist, flat continuous planes at right angles to one another . . . .”
The random adventures of life stitched together and explained with unconventional devices—that both do and don’t work.