Reviewed by Allan Weiss
Bruce Meyer is a poet, fiction author, editor, scholar, and professor with over sixty books to his credit. Down in the Ground is a collection of short stories and flash fiction that displays his talents as a storyteller and creator of vivid images. As one might gather from its title, the book’s main theme is death; however, it also deals with the ways we seek to achieve a form of immortality through our words, our families, and the memories we bequeath to those whose lives we have touched.
The collection is divided into three parts: “The End,” “The Middle,” and “The Beginning” in that order. The texts in the first part focus more on elderly characters while those in the third feature more children, but most of the book concerns how the old and young relate. The title story is about the legacy of mining in a community and family, one passed down from older generations to the unnamed “boy”; just as the men go underground to work, the dead must be buried, including a long-lived canary that had served the family well and becomes symbolic of its journeys into the pits and through life. The fishing rod in “The Smell of Spring” also represents family legacy, and when Gary’s grandfather passes it down to him instead of Gary’s father the act leads to a bitter divide. The four seasons in the story symbolize the stages of the individual lives and family histories. “Restoration” recapitulates the volume’s reverse chronology as a centenarian finally receives proper medical care in her nursing home and magically ages backward, until she looks and behaves like a woman in her thirties and leaves the institution.
The themes of loss and family dominate the middle part. The smashed parrot in “Alabaster” represents the couple’s lost child, while in “The Tiptoe Effect” Meyer uses surrealist hyperbole to depict a couple’s “Bundle of Joy” as a literal giant monster they must cope with but that then leaves, as children must. Time’s passage and memory’s role as a means to freeze time and preserve the past can be seen in “The Run,” a ghost story of sorts about efforts to replace an old sidewalk; overturning the slabs releases the century-old spirit of a young girl. In “Popcorn,” the theme is embodied in the Seaforth, the formerly elegant movie theatre where the narrator used to see old films with his Aunt Elizabeth. A comic highlight of the middle portion is “The Sophomore Philosophy Club,” in which undergraduates role-play as various philosophers and engage in various forms of “debate.”
The children in the final part include those in “Ear to the Ground” who declare that in their games the world on the other side of the railway tracks is off-limits. When the narrator’s grandfather becomes ill and must be driven across the tracks to the hospital, the journey means travelling to that other, unknown world beyond. The boys in “The Higgins” encounter a very different kind of older man when they ride their bicycles into the creek bottom. After he attacks one of them, the narrator says of the protagonist’s new bicycle, “he concluded that freedom was not what he thought it was; that the world was a small and troubled place; and that his Higgins would only take him so far” (150). The themes of intolerance and war can be seen in “Sheet Music,” about the sorts of music that are or are not “acceptable” during wartime—depending on their national origins—while “Bicycle Bell” portrays a painful duty a telegram boy must perform as he delivers the bad news to the families of soldiers.
Certain motifs unify the collection as a whole. Flowers symbolize the paradoxical transience yet preservation of both the past and beauty, especially through memory. Examples include the pressing of flowers in old books In “The Wildflowers of Ontario,” while in “Edible Flowers” flowers are beautiful and memorable in part because they are so short-lived. “The Smell of Spring” is one of several stories in which fishing represents family ties; another is “The Fishers,” in which the river is overtly, and perhaps too conventionally, presented as a symbol of time’s passage. Relieving the seriousness of the book’s major themes are tales of humour and a reaching for wonder.
A few of the stories are sentimental, and some are enigmatic. Most are evocative portrayals of the role that time plays in our lives and of the means we have to overcome the losses that its passage inevitably brings.
Down in the Ground is published by Guernica Editions.