A pair of ragged claws
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