Themes of suffering, endurance and sacrifice dominate the pages of Toast Soldiers, Bruce Meyer’s darkly impressive collection of short fiction. These are morally complex, psychologically persuasive stories in which Meyer routinely mines harrowing past experiences to inform the dilemmas and difficulties his characters face in the present.
Many of Meyer’s characters are veterans of armed or some other kind of physical conflict. In “Toast Soldiers,” the protagonist, Keith, a cantankerous, ailing resident of a nursing home, is still haunted years later by the death of his friend George in WW2, a tragic and preventable event that resulted from poor judgment and misplaced trust. “Oglevie” tells the poignant tale of a washed-up boxer who, returning to his hometown in search of renewal and a second chance, instead finds the place, much like himself, beaten down and scarred by years of loss and misfortune, but still clinging to hopes of redemption and a brighter future.
“The Ghosts” takes place in the immediate aftermath of WW1. Tan, Kwon and Tsin are members of a “Labour Battalion,” whose dangerous and grisly mission includes burying bodies left in the trenches and clearing battle sites of land mines. At one point they come across the shards of a shattered Chinese burial vase and work together through the night to reassemble the pieces, transfixed and consoled by the beauty and mystical properties of such an object amidst so much carnage.
And in “Warmth,” a journalist is interviewing Jim Davvy about the night he went missing when he was four years old. Davvy, philosophical by nature and a rational thinker who years later has become a doctor, recounts the cold autumn night he wandered away from his family’s farm and into the woods, drawn by “curiosity” about what lay beyond the boundary of his known world. Interest in Davvy’s story has persisted through the years because of his insistence that he survived two nights of frigid cold alone in the wild with a bear protecting him and keeping him warm. The journalist is trying to separate fact from fiction, but this proves difficult if not impossible since so many years have passed and the story has been muddied and embellished to the point that nobody, including Davvy himself, can say for sure what happened. In the end, it all seems to come down to the human will to survive and the strength of man’s physical and spiritual connection to the living world.
Meyer often sets his stories in the distant—as opposed to the immediate—aftermath of trauma, taking as his subject people hobbled by the past who are looking for ways to live with what happened. This contributes to the book’s somewhat wistful tone.
But there is also formidable intelligence at work here, as well as an aesthetic that is historically and spiritually conscious. Meyer’s stories find their inspiration in real-world drama: they are complex, layered, and do not seek easy resolution. Throughout this sometimes dour but always engaging collection of short fiction, Bruce Meyer writes movingly about people forced to live with guilt or make the best of reduced circumstances. And we can’t help but admire them for it.
Bruce Meyer is the author of sixty-seven books of poetry, short stories, flash fiction, and non-fiction, including three national bestsellers (The Golden Thread, Portraits of Canadian Writers, and the anthology We Wasn’t Pals that he co-edited with Barry Callaghan).
His short stories have won or been shortlisted for numerous international fiction awards including the Tom Gallon Trust Fiction Prize from the Society of Authors in the UK, the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction (UK), the Retreat West Fiction Prize (UK), the Fish Fiction Prize (IRE), the London International Short Story Prize (UK), the Freefall Fiction Prize (CAN), the Thomas Morton Fiction Prize (CAN), the Carter V. Cooper Prize for Short Fiction (CAN), the Strand International Fiction Prize (IND), and Wingless Dreamer Short Story Prize (USA).
He lives in Barrie, Ontario and teaches at Georgian College and at the University of Toronto. Toast Soldiers is Meyer’s 68th book. You can find an interview with him here.
- Publisher : Crowsnest Books (Oct. 26 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 246 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0921332807
- ISBN-13 : 978-0921332800
The distancing from trauma would create a specific response, the wistfulness you identify. Do you think this is more effective than setting the story closer to the trauma?
Not necessarily more effective. But by pushing the action to years after the trauma, the author creates a narrative very different from one written about the immediate aftermath of the event–the characters have had time to consider and reflect on what happened: for example, to grow bitter or become remorseful.