As with any university town, Kingston, Ontario has its fair share of writers that call the Limestone City home: Diane Schoemperlen, Merilyn Simonds, Steven Heighton and many more. Add Adrian Michael Kelly to the list. His newest book, The Ambassador of What (2018, ECW Press) is a collection of stories, some previously published, but many appearing in print for the first time.Primarily about a father and son relationship, The Ambassador of What is full of raw emotion at moments (“Stragglers”, “It Does Not Control You”) and at other times, Mr. Kelly gently prods at what lies at the basis of a most intimate, yet oftentimes dysfunctional symbiosis (“Private Function”, “Lure”). The dialogues between father and son are kept terse, leaving the reader to discern the underlying emotions of the moment. In the following excerpt from “Stragglers”, the father has been coaching the son as a runner, about to enter the Toronto Marathon. He has been taking pictures of his son running the day before the competition, but instead of doing a relaxing run, the son has run full out, much to his father’s consternation:
Downstairs in the finished room, he pointed to the floor.
I stood where he said and saw it coming. BANG, above the ear.
What in f*** was that?
You said put some umph in it.
Could have pulled a muscle.
We don’t even have a projector.
BANG, opposite side.
BANG, back on the left. Anything else to tell me?
Go and give your face a wash. Comb that hair as well.
I found this type of verbal exchange a little off-putting at first, but after a while, I got into the rhythm of it. Despite the above exchange, it becomes clear throughout the connected stories that the father is always proud of his son, and the son is deeply attached to his father, his shortcomings as a parent and as a person notwithstanding. In “Lure” my favourite story, the father and son (I’m still not sure if they are the same combo as in “Stragglers” or not, but it really doesn’t matter) get up early to go fishing, hoping to get a big Muskie. The father has purchased new tackle for the son (who is eight at the time) and frogs for bait. The son uses a Red Devil lure.
They have left the places that feel like places. Here is like pictures in Art and Geography. Granite. An esker. Jackpines. A river.
After purchasing three frogs for bait, they approach the lake in their car:
His father flicks the blinker, and they turn down a gravel road. Then the gravel stops and there are only dirt and potholes. The birch trees gather in like a crowd round a body. In the side mirror, the boy watches fallen leaves leap and wrestle then fall back to the road. They pass rutted laneways – a crow on a gatepost – that lead to big evergreens with cabins boarded up. Then a dip and a turn and there is the lake. The colour of blackboards. Here and there on the far side a few cottages, but not a boat on it.
Just us, Dad.
Magical stuff. It stopped me right in my reading tracks as I was taken back to my father and I fishing on “our lake” north of Kingston way back in the late sixties and early seventies before I eschewed the call of the wild for the call of the city and romantic pursuits.
The Ambassador of What is full of powerful stories not only of father and son but son and mother and brother and sister (as in Private Function). All are well-written in a sparse prose that reflects well on how estranged family members speak to one another as they try to bridge the years and the opportunities lost by not maintaining closer connections. There is something for everyone in The Ambassador of What, but particularly for fathers and sons, whether they are close or separated by other events beyond their control. The emotionally-charged stories in The Ambassador of What will resonate with those of us who lived in the Pre-Connected Age of family life.
The Ambassador of What by Adrian Michael Kelly
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