Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Kenneth Radu’s latest collection of short stories focuses on money—the need for it, the different ways it affects us. A lottery winner. A rich widower. A man at the end of his rope. A profligate son hoping for an inheritance. Money is a drug. It infects us. It soothes us. We cannot live without it. Radu likes to publish his stories with a theme. Earthbound dealt with the harsh reality of life. Sex in Russia traveled to distant lands. A Private Performance looked at hidden intimacies. So now we have Net Worth, in which money stands front and centre.
Several of the stories in New Worth are very effective. The first one in the book, “Lottery,” is about a woman, Annie, who wins $42 million from Loto-Québec. But she has reservations. What would it do to her life? Is all that money worth it? Radu gets into Annie’s doubts and confusion very well, dissecting the virtues and pitfalls of sudden wealth, how it seeps into to every aspect of your life, your behaviour, your relationships.
“Personal Injury” has two narrators, both unnamed. The first is a woman who is late for work and knows she will get in trouble for it because this has become something of a pattern. The reasons are varied and largely not within her control, but her supervisor is not happy. She stews and frets, trying not to vent her frustration and anger. At one point she drops several coins into the hat of a beggar on the street. The second narrator is this beggar, a homeless man who has accepted his lot and attempts to make it through each day in as organized a fashion as he can, striving to maintain some sort of dignity while working to ward off hunger.
The last story in Net Worth, “Keats’ Walk,” is about a widower, Jerome, who is on a trip to England by himself. He and his wife had talked about going places, but they never had. Now he looks back on his life as he visits Jane Austen’s house and walks on a path that Keats walked while himself in mourning. Jerome debates with himself about whether he should be spending money—which might otherwise go to his children in the not-to-distant future—in this way.
Several stories are about the absence of wealth. “Residential Requirements” is about a man who works in a seniors’ home, supplementing his meagre salary with cash gifts from some of the female residents. In “Final Tally,” a young man who is the child of members of a religious cult reflects on moving out of his parents’ house when he was a teenager and how he was able to support himself.
In the title story, “Net Worth,” Lorne, a widower with a teenage son, is looking for work and literally counts his pennies when he buys what little food he can afford. He has no car and walks from business to business to drop off his CV rather than pay for the bus. As he does this, he contemplates violence to others and himself.
All the stories are thought-provoking and reflective, each in its own way, using money as a vehicle to explore such diverse subjects as a spouse’s early death, old age, leaving an inheritance, waiting for an inheritance, divorce, and coming early into the personal independence of adulthood. The varied meanings of having, keeping, and losing money come up frequently in each of these contexts.
Sometimes, though, this reflection is too much. The less successful of the stories all have the same defect in common: a character’s ruminations about his or her lot that go on and on to become a virtual monotone. The characters end up sounding the same, and their individual personalities get lost. Radu also has a strange habit of using what words and phrases that come across as 19th-century verbal relics, for example: “malefactor,” “munificence,” “dirty deeds,” “declaimed.” There are others. It is doubtful that a character, a woman at that, would think, “What dirty deeds did he come with?” then come out with “What the fuck?” a few lines later. These odd words are infrequent, but they are nonetheless jarring and work against the immediacy of the narrative.
There are some typos, most of them, unfortunately, in the first story, Lottery,” so the book begins on an uneven note. Also, there are inconsistencies in spelling conventions, especially with dollar amounts. Again these are mostly in the first story, but this is, after all, a book about money and attention should have been paid to this sort of thing.
And lastly, there is a howler, which is so timely it’s funny without remotely meaning to be so. In the fourth story, “Trust Fund,” Radu has the central female character wishing for “a good luxuriant soak in a hot bath with emoluments and oils.” Ahem. Someone has been clearly distracted by the media’s obsession with the current American president’s potential conflicts with the US Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 9, paragraph 8. Yes, the “emoluments” clause. And no, it has nothing whatever to do with skin care. (Trump surfaces in earnest two stories later, when Radu has a spendthrift heir try to justify himself by saying he had “recently read a book about success by Donald Trump.”) While the goings-on down South are certainly compelling entertainment—tragedy neck-deep in farce—the correct word is “emollients.”
Defects aside, these stories are a wonderful exploration into what money does to us all.
Net Worth is published by DC Books Canada.