Shimmer by Alex Pugsley

I came to the work of Alex Pugsley by way, I suppose, of the back basement door—a somewhat appropriate door, as it’s one he refers to in his rollickingly brilliant novel, Aubrey McKee. To continue the metaphor, that first encounter was via a story in the Vancouver-based magazine, sub-Terrain.

“The unity of the stories is based more on the fact that nearly all the people portrayed are the sort that many would classify as losers.”

From there, it’s been an adventure of sorts. Aside from a few rowdy scenes in the novel, this book is quite the departure. For one thing, it isn’t a novel, but a collection of short stories whose loose links rely on only a few characters who appear in more than one piece. The unity of the stories is based more on the fact that nearly all the people portrayed are the sort that many would classify as losers – a societal step down from most of the inhabitants who filled the pages of Aubrey McKee which, in truth, is a kind of history of Halifax, one that will apparently be continued in at least another volume.  

I have to give Pugsley some credit for taking such a dive; it’s almost as if he held his breath and jumped into a brand-new deep end. His greatest gift as a writer is, I believe, his ability to carry a story by way of dialogue. What the characters say mostly serves as fill-in for narration that so many of us rely on for telling our stories.

‘20 Herring Cove’ is the one-way conversation of a woman who’s riding a bus. Reactions from anyone else who might be taking that same trip is left to our imaginations and our own ‘inner bus-rider’. 

There’s a story that unfolds as a series of emails – there’s no linking narration – and none is required to follow along.

Another story, ‘Twyla’ takes place in a therapist’s office. We’re there for a series of conversations that are believable as content from real psychiatric appointments. This, among the most serious pieces in the book, is one that for me, lingered.

…Twyla leans down, picks a piece of lint from the Persian carpet, and flings it toward the wastepaper basket. “So this is therapy,” she says. “I don’t know what I think of it. It’s sort of making me confront the fact that even after thirty-four years on the planet, I still don’t know why I do the stupid shit I do.”

“Some people go their whole lives without knowing. This takes courage, Twyla.”

“Yeah? I mean, I know I can be a megacritical negatron. I’m not really a glass-half-full person. I’m more a glass-half-empty-and-shatters-and-cuts-everyone’s-face person. But I’m not a monster. I do have a heart.”

He uses such great words – negatron for one – even flumpy and lurpy as descriptors. Although both those terms were unfamiliar to me (I found them after I’d read the book, entries on those curiously interesting urban dictionary sites), in context they made a certain kind of sense: “Like skater kids and flumpy girls in drama…” or “…she’s got her arm around somebody – it’s that lurpy little guy, Darren Myer’s little brother.”  Maybe it’s just that these conversations make me feel like I’m part of the gang, that I’m included and in on the jokes.

Pugsley’s characters talk the way a lot of real people still do. And often those characters say things they’re probably not even aware that they’re not supposed to say.

There may still be readers too offended to open the pages of a book where people swear and use what many consider crude language – and do so, both frequently and unapologetically. I hope there aren’t many who are that afraid of words.

Although not at all the same book as the semi-historical epic that his novel was, Shimmer is nonetheless fun, though in a perhaps longing-for-youth sort of mood. And yes, these stories, which have been appearing in various literary magazines, represent a brave departure from the highly-praised Aubrey McKee. And even if Shimmer the book doesn’t quite match the well-done promotion video (worth checking out – here’s the link [INSERT into parentheses: Shimmer Trailer – YouTube] ), the writing’s worth the price of admission. I must admit though when it comes to anticipating the next book from this author, I’m more looking forward to Book Two of the Halifax epic than to more up-and-downer shenanigans from Shimmer’s mostly lovable losers.


Alex Pugsley is a writer and filmmaker originally from Nova Scotia. His fiction has appeared in BrickThe WalrusMcSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Best Canadian Stories, among other publications. His debut novel, Aubrey McKee, was published by Biblioasis in 2020. He lives in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (May 17 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 224 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771964693
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771964692

 -- Website

Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca

(Photo credit: George Omorean)