Saturday, August 24, 2013

Canary: Stories by Nancy Jo Cullen

The short stories in Nancy Jo Cullen's first collection, Canary, are about moving on and letting go of the past. Her characters are easily recognizable, young and old, living in different Canadian locations. Most of the stories have at least one queer protagonist.

In 'Ashes,' a family in the Okanagan erupts at the same time as Mount St. Helens. In 'Passenger,' on the spur of the moment, an elderly widower from Fort St John invites his neighbour's queer granddaughter to join him on a long-distance driving pilgrimage. A closeted gay Torontonian and his much younger wife each have their own reasons for keeping their marriage together in 'The 14th Week in Ordinary Time'.

(In one of those odd literary coincidences that I love, Maria Goretti, the little virgin martyr, is mentioned in 'The 14th Week in Ordinary Time' as well as being the namesake of one of the daughters in Jacqueline Dumas' Madeleine and the Angel.)

In 'Regina,' a 23-year-old waitress at a newly-renovated pub in downtown Vancouver in the '80s questions her direction in life. She isn't so sure about her boyfriend, either. "He was into business plans. I was into being a movie star or a lesbian. It wasn't as easy a choice as it might sound."

"The Blue Sky was the last refuge of men like Al and Fred and Jack, surrounded as they were by Robson Street's new yuppies, designer boutiques and gay men. Fred and Al and Jack tried to be pleasant but the future was encroaching and it didn't like their yellow fingers and dingy suits. They were not accustomed to being met with such open distaste. Not that they were finicky but being phased out does not bring out the best in people."

I have found myself thinking a lot about these stories since finishing the book. There is an atmosphere of sadness, but Cullen treats her troubled characters with compassion. The epigraph -- Gas, grass or ass, no one rides for free -- is fair warning. Whether we open ourselves to love, or shut ourselves away from it, there is always a price to pay just for being alive.

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