Daddy Lenin, by Guy Vanderhaeghe (McClelland & Stewart 2015)
Guy Vanderhaeghe built his early reputation as a short story writer. His debut collection, Man Descending, secured him the first of two Governor General Awards in a career that has also garnered him shortlist nods for both the Giller and the Dublin IMPACT, among his many accolades. Arguably, his current reputation among readers is staked upon his more recent loose trilogy of novels, which terminated in The Last Crossing. Daddy Lenin marks Vanderhaeghe’s return to the short story genre after a twenty-three year hiatus. Evidently, time has not blunted his purpose.
The measure of a good short story should be how easily it can be held in the hand. Like a cut stone, the reader should be able to turn it over and hold it to the light – to enjoy the unity of purpose each facet contributes to its fashioning. The short story stays with you in a way the novel, in its length and complexity, cannot. A good short fits in the pocket. In this way, the nine stories of Daddy Lenin might be a master class in the genre.
These are the stories of men, primarily. Men searching for purpose. Men struggling for relevance. Men reflecting on lives lived and not lived. Men all too aware of the “tick tock” of their own mortality, and how their passage will be weighed or found wanting in the end. Even the teenaged Troy, in the collection’s opening story, “The Jimi Henrix Experience,” is forced to take a long, hard look at the abyss of an old man’s photo albumn. An experience which leaves him thinking, “It’s no different from staring into the blank television screen. The snow shifting, forming faces of famous people locked in the circuitry from old programs. The hiss of static turning into favourite songs, guitar chords whining and dying.” An experience so bleak and frightening that it leaves him “running through the late-afternoon stillness of an empty suburban street…where the sun is either coming up or going down.”
In similar fashion, the collection’s title story examines the recently retired, Jack Corbin – failed academic and disgruntled husband – who rediscovers an old mentor and professor whom he holds responsible for his unhappiness. Jack sets out to redeem himself, bolstered by a late opportunity to seek a revenge of sorts – against the man, against his wife. But Jack’s disappointment is foreshadowed in his inability to win a mid-story “staring contest” he unwittingly enters with a mysterious stranger. “Heart banging, he lowered his eyes, and before he knew it his feet were carrying him away…he couldn’t say why this Disney-enchanted-kingdom nightmare filled him with such anxiety and apprehension.” Like Troy, who had seen his future measured out in another man’s photo albumn, Jack comes face to face with his past and his present, “the place to which every step and misstep he had ever made had been leading him for years.”
In spite of these bleak endings, Vanderheaghe’s stories offer both humour and stoicism, as well. The former is best evident in the aging, acerbic tongue of Uncle Ted, in “Counselor Sally Brings Me to the Tunnel”; the latter, in the attitude of Billy Constable, who in “Live Large” catches “again the bird-like cloud on this morning’s horizon, when everything seemed salvageable.” But most importantly, these stories offer courage. In worlds where media and the working-class father figures of a bygone age have left Vanderhaeghe’s protagonists bereft of applicable role models, in steps Charley Brewster. The climax of “Tick Tock” should bring back images of Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino.
If you read short stories, this collection will confirm your faith in the genre. If you don’t, this just might convert you. The stories of Daddy Lenin are ultimately brilliant bits of prestidigitation, satisfying and full blown in their revelations.