Reviewed by Ian Shaw
Russell Wangersky in his latest collection of short fiction, The Path of Most Resistance is simply brilliant.
The collection of thirteen short stories takes the reader through the lives of very ordinary people, who together create a beautiful mosaic of human sentiment. If there is one thread to the stories, it is resilience paced along a spectrum from acquiescence to rage.
While each story in The Path of Most Resistance is a gem of literary fiction in its own right, three stories surpass in their allegorical excellence. They are wonderful tales shadowing the temporal nature of life, the timeless of trivial competition and the beauty of fateful encounter.
"The Official Rules of Pool" tells the story of a young couple stopping by a community hall in a small prairie town, now populated by an ageing population. While Matt waits for his wife, Shelley, to come back from the washroom, he observes the hall of old men playing dominoes and their wives eating chicken soup. One older woman captures his eye. She stares at him, as if to recognize him from some distant corner of her past. Matt is mesmerized by her. He hears the sound of an approaching train. Her face changes to that of a beautiful young woman, full of hope for the future, and he is transported to witness her in the sexual embrace of a lover against the back of the community hall. The train passes, and Matt is back in the community hall. As the young couple leaves, the old woman grabs Matt's shirt and says, "Did you see it?" The passage leaves the reader wrenched with a mixture of eroticism and self-realization of how temporal life really is.
"Snow" is the story of competition of men well past their prime. It relates the intense desire of 72-year-old Art Ford to beat his neighbour, a retired "tax man," from clearing the snow from the pavement in front of the house of their younger neighbour, Mary Tobbins. The reward? A short wave and a smile. The men's snow blowers become their stallions on a jousting field covered with fresh snow. Each has to follow the unwritten rules of clearing their own sidewalks first and pulling no shortcuts. It is demanding work for the two, pushing them to the limits of their health. But when the men meet head to head in the middle of the sidewalk in front of Mary's house, neither will give way.
"Farewell Tour" is by far the most romantic of Wangersky's stories. It tells the story of a still young man, Sam, who tries to overcome his obsession with the end of a long relationship. His plan is to re-visit all the vacation spots he has been with his ex-girlfriend in order to displace his memories of her there with fresh experiences. He fails. Her presence is indelible, and each visit ends up pushing him further toward depression. When his hopelessness reaches a zenith, the overbooking of the dining room at the last resort obliges him to share a table with a stranger, who too is on a quest to purge a ghost.
With few exceptions, Wangersky's characters are male and humourless, albeit with great power to evoke empathy. Ironically, the title story in his collection, "The Path of Most Resistance," is written from the perspective of Nell, a young gay woman. Desperately hoping to win back the affection of her lover Sara, who is now with a man, Nell unleashes her soul in a letter from a Mexican town that she and her lover had long planned to visit together. While this story does not attain the literary brilliance of other stories in the collection, it does demonstrate the versatility of the author. Perhaps, this was what Wangersky had intended--a challenge to step outside of the box to capture and channel emotions from the absence of direct experience and reach a degree of universality.
On quickly connecting his readers to the emotional state of his characters---something most writers aspire to, Wangersky's work is the gold standard. He never rushes the readers through a plot, nor is there any sense of manipulation. Instead, he takes his readers on a slow-moving train, sometimes down the slope, sometimes winding slowly around a mountain, but always arriving at a meaningful destination.
The Path of Most Resistance is published by House of Anansi.