Reviewed by Dessa Bayrock
Guy Vanderhaeghe’s newest work is a collection of short stories starring a variety of oddly familiar characters. In Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, harsh fathers and weary mothers abound, as do middle-aged or aged male protagonists coming to grips with their lost youth. As the collection progresses, the reader begins to spot Vanderhaeghe’s subtle insinuation that the past is never really done with us; the effects of tragedies and victories alike continue to ripple through time.
In some cases, these stories work really well, but for the most part this collection is disappointingly flat and similar: young man makes terrible mistake, realises ramifications decades later, and finally mourns for what might have been. This is the downside to the old adage to write what you know; everything starts sounding suspiciously the same.
Vanderhaeghe’s characters are predominately white, predominately male, predominately late- or middle-aged. They are aware of their failures and limits but largely unable to move past them. In the most successful stories of this collection, this inability to move beyond the past is tragic or ironic. However, the repetition of this trope weakens even the most striking stories in the collection; it quickly becomes exhausting to see the same narrative and character progressions reframed in such similar ways. In many of the stories, the protagonists even share similar backgrounds: small-minded towns struggling with poverty, broken families with drunk or absent fathers, frameworks dependent upon violence and hard physical work. The value of these stories shouldn’t be discounted entirely – but it certainly becomes difficult to appreciate a story when it is placed alongside five or ten similar stories.
That said, two stories in this collection especially are worth reading, even if you give the rest of the collection a pass. “Tick Tock” is an unsettling look at the insistence of violence; Brewster, a mild-mannered university professor, feels phantom pains in his hands when he begins overhearing domestic disputes next door. “Koenig & Company” stars a club-footed valedictorian and the neighbour kid she babysits – an honest and blunt look at the differences between perceiving and understanding another person.
And ultimately, Vanderhaeghe nails an intriguing underlying theme in this collection: a sort of neo-western, prairie gothic setting. Like any classic gothic writer, Vanderhaeghe has an eye for decay. How do relationships disintegrate? Houses? Families? How do objects wear out or break down? Individuals? Communities? How are people and societies haunted – and what ghosts are haunting them?
These themes flourish in Daddy Lenin, and Vanderhaeghe uses these stories to showcase how the dry prairie landscape can roost at the centre of the people who live in its cities and farms. Fittingly, perhaps the best example of Vanderhaeghe’s gothic style is the title story, as the protagonist’s perfect middle-aged life crumbles around him with the lurking awareness that he is no longer welcome within – or even suited to the painfully tasteful walls of his own home – a perfect, chilling realisation to conclude this collection.
Daddy Lenin and Other Stories is published by McClelland & Stewart.