A pair of ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

LAST week I men­tioned the wrestling prow­ess of young Cana­dian writer DW Wil­son. This week, I think it’s only fair I talk a bit about his writ­ing prow­ess.

Wil­son, 28, has pub­lished two books, a short-story collection with the cracking ti­tle of Once You Break a Knuckle and a novel called Bal­lis­tics. While both were on the fringes on my to-read list I might not have opened them any time soon had I not been asked to do a ses­sion with Wil­son (who calls him­self Dave) at the re­cent Perth Writ­ers Fes­ti­val. I’m glad that hap­pened be­cause both books are quite bril­liant. Wil­son was born and raised in the Koote­nay Val­ley in Bri­tish Columbia, in the shadow of the Cana­dian Rock­ies, and most of his fic­tion un­folds in that land­scape. Once You Break a Knuckle is a se­ries of loosely con­nected sto­ries in which the main recurring char­ac­ters are John Crease, a hard-as-tacks con­sta­ble in the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice, his late­teens son Will and Will’s friend Mitch. (Wil­son’s fa­ther is a re­tired Moun­tie.) In the mar­vel­lous open­ing story, The Elas­tic­ity of Bone, Will and his dad, who is about to be de­ployed to Kosovo, square off in a judo tour­na­ment. When Will mo­men­tar­ily has the bet­ter of the tus­sle, he thinks, “if I hurt him, just a lit­tle — a sprained wrist, bruised rib, mi­nor con­cus­sion — he would miss his flight. He would not go to Kosovo.”

But the older man ral­lies — “pain is only weak­ness leav­ing the body’’ — and wins. “Even the ref­eree smiled. I stayed on the ground. My old man laboured to his feet and reached down and I caught his hand. He hoisted me up. He pat­ted my back. The ref­eree awarded the match and we bowed off the mat. Dam­mit, old man, I said. Some­day, boy, he said, and grinned, the two of us alone in that roar­ing gym.’’

In the ti­tle story there’s a beau­ti­ful mo­ment when Will hurts his hand dur­ing a tug of war with — who else? — his fa­ther. Mitch is the nar­ra­tor: “When he saw that hand, Will’s old man went blood-white. He stood there above his son as awk­ward as a boy ... Will grunted to his old man, who knelt in front of him and rolled up the sleeve so he could in­spect it and, about as ten­derly as I’d ever seen, cupped that man­gled hand in one big, creased palm.”

Bal­lis­tics also has fa­thers and sons — and moth­ers — at its heart. Early in the novel, 14year-old Jack West is out hunt­ing with his fa­ther, Ce­cil, when he shoots an­other man in the leg. The wounded man, who is patched up by Ce­cil, is Archer, a dec­o­rated sol­dier who has fled into Canada to avoid re­turn­ing to the Viet­nam War. Archer has a teenage daugh­ter, Lin­nea. On the edge of their lives is a mys­te­ri­ous young Amer­i­can, Crib. There’s also a coura­geous three-legged mas­tiff, Puck, who al­most steals the show. When I asked Wil­son to guess my favourite char­ac­ter in the book, he took barely a mo­ment’s thought be­fore an­swer­ing: Puck. As the story moves back and forth in time, Ce­cil and Archer fall in love with the same woman, Nora, and Jack and Lin­nea, as young adults, have and aban­don a child, Alan. The novel’s bind­ing nar­ra­tive is Alan’s quest, as a young man, to find his fa­ther and mother, at the be­hest of his dy­ing grand­fa­ther. Through this trans-Cana­dian odyssey we learn some shock­ing se­crets about these in­ter­con­nected lives. “There are points in life, maybe,’’ Archer thinks at one stage, “when we si­mul­ta­ne­ously learn a great truth about an­other per­son and a great truth about our­selves ...’’

Wil­son’s pared-back prose and emo­tional punch has earned him the in­evitable com­par­isons with Ernest Hem­ing­way and Ray­mond Carver. But when I asked him about his favourite short story collection he sur­prised by nam­ing Tim Win­ton’s The Turn­ing. From there he went into a rave about Win­ton’s Cloud­street — “It just blew my mind” — which he cred­its with help­ing him work out how to be a writer.

March 15-16, 2014

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