Stories expose harsh reality of youth
If The Other Side of Youth, the resonant title of Kelli Deeth’s second story collection, raises hopeful images before your eyes — the pleasures of independence, say, or the comforts of mature self-awareness — dialing those expectations way down is a smart move. A Torontonian, Deeth’s portraits of adolescent and fully grown women dwell on alienated and lost souls whose prospects range from minimal to zilch.
The titular phrase, in fact, appears in the 11th and final wintry tale in a volume that’s meticulous in its surveying of dead-end circumstances. Something Happy focuses on exhausted and battered-by-life Carmen (the view of her current residence: an apartment facing “two beige office buildings owned by Imperial Oil, but behind them was a cemetery, a narrow tract of land, and gravestones slumped in snow;” nearby, a “giant oak tree used to soften the hardness of the buildings, but the city had cut the tree down to a stump”).
After Carmen endures a visit by her unpleasant mother and stepfather, she’s beset by a glum eureka: that she’s “thirty-six, on the other side of youth, and could only hope for so much now.”
As her 2001 debut book of spare stories, The Girl Without Anyone, artfully exhibited, Deeth can write a model story — compact, distinct, eerie and stick-with-you memorable.
Here, each individual story represents an admirable effort, carefully constructed and observed. Taken cumulatively, though, they blur into a funereal procession.
While Carmen and the numb women in Sis and Souvenirs sit passively through family dysfunction of assorted severity, the emotionally erratic women of The Things They Said and Embrace seek or find intimate entanglements with men. Their futures seem less than assured.
Depressed and directionless, Carmen does at least find some solace in a husband. In contrast, Correct Caller makes a study in stark grey shades of Michelle, a 16-year-old of few words who’s mired in an affair with a greasy married loser named Russell.
The pair work side-by-side in a gas station booth. He takes Michelle out for dinner at Pizza Hut and later rapes her anally: in the car’s back seat Michelle transforms into “a pulseless object being stuffed and grabbed at. She squeezed her face up, so it felt as small and tight as a gum wrapper. She allowed it. He was Russell, and he wanted her.”
End of Summer similarly charts choice hours in the teenage schedule of Sandra: a guy tells her, “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to dig your grave tonight.” Looking in a mirror later she evaluates her “spotty and despicable” face. She spends time thinking about her brother’s suicide and her contemptuous mother’s wish that Sandra instead had died.
It’s entirely possible to fully admire a work of art for its craft and technical accomplishments and still not really like or enjoy it. And that’s the case for me with The Other Side of Youth.
OF UPCOMING PUBLICATIONS INCLUDE A SECOND NOVEL,
OF AS WELL AS A COLLECTION