In Urban Disturbances, his second collection of short fiction, Bruce McDougall writes unaffectedly and persuasively about unexceptional people doing unremarkable things.
There is about these stories of quotidian lives a natural, unforced quality that leaves the impression of inexorableness, of destiny unfolding in the only way it can. McDougall’s stories (arranged in four sections: Ordinary, Mean, Sad, Fantasy) are set in a metropolitan here and now: with few exceptions the world of this collection is the one we see when we look out our window. And, as we might expect of such a world, not all of the people inhabiting it are admirable or even very likable.
In “A Walk with God,” Ali, from Pakistan, lives in a small apartment in downtown Toronto and regularly sends a portion of his earnings from his menial restaurant job home to his family in Lahore. His dream is to save enough to be able to bring his mother and sister to Canada. But before this can happen his life is profoundly and indelibly altered through a series of unforeseeable events set in motion when he assumes care of a co-worker’s pet chihuahua, named God.
In “Husbands,” Rosie’s father split from her mother when Rosie was very young. As a result, Rosie does not trust men easily and finds herself unable to commit emotionally to her mother’s abrasive second husband King. “All in the Game” tells the story of Carl Vigneault, once a highly regarded professional hockey prospect who squandered his talent through reckless, unruly behaviour and ended up serving time in a training school for juvenile delinquents. After being released, he pays a visit to the house where he grew up and where his mother still lives. She’s not home, but while looking around at her possessions and the artifacts of her dull, safe life, he realizes that he forfeited her love a long time ago and no longer has a place in her world. And in “Birding with Dad,” Paul navigates a delicate path toward adulthood through the minefield of his parent’s corrosive marriage.
In these and other stories in this satisfying collection McDougall chronicles dilemmas that people face when they confront human weakness and depravity head on—their own or that of others—and as a result, must compromise their principles or spend time and effort engaged in activities they find distasteful or simply inconvenient. McDougall’s precise, staccato prose is perfectly suited to these tales of discord and struggle. Again and again, he generates suspense with a series of simple declarative sentences, at the same time conjuring vivid environments where his characters enact their private tragedies and test each other’s mettle. The stories in the final section, Fantasy, seem trivial compared to the others but display the quirky side of McDougall’s creative imagination and a refreshing proclivity for whimsy not seen elsewhere in the book.
But these are not tales for those in search of comfort or with a hankering for a cozy fireside read. These are unsettling stories filled with spontaneous deceit, casual betrayals, and mindless acts of cruelty. Disturbing indeed, but hard truths usually are.
Bruce McDougall has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. A graduate of Harvard College, he served as an editor of The Harvard Lampoon and attended the University of Toronto Law School before becoming a full-time writer. He has written or co-written more than twenty non-fiction books, including The Last Hockey Game (Goose Lane, 2014) and biographies of Canadian poet Charles Mair; Canada’s first detective, John Wilson Murray; and business giant Ted Rogers. He has also published a collection of short stories, Every Minute Is a Suicide (Porcupine’s Quill, 2014). His essays have appeared in The Antigonish Review and his fiction in Geist, subTerrain and Scrivener. He lives in Toronto.
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