These books, Bertin’s first and Barwin’s eighteenth, are very good for very different reasons. In the short stories of Bad Things Happen, most of the narrators and main characters are young men stuck in poverty or, less often, thriving temporarily as small-time criminals. Most of them work either too hard or for too little money, usually at jobs they don’t like: garbage collector, chauffeur, gas-station employee, window cleaner, call-centre scam artist. Sometimes they are hopelessly unemployed. One exception is the garbage collector in “The Narrow Passage,” who becomes so good at his job that he tries to raise others’ standards, and he is victim to an attack dog as a result. Another is Chris in the closing story, “Your #1 Killer,” who discovers that his boyhood hobby of violent video games prepares him surprisingly well for his new hobby-become-job of exterminator. Bertin’s choice of finales suggests a darkly cynical but realistic view of how poverty drives some men to violence. With its theme of precarity—or, more accurately, reliable lousiness—Bad Things Happen will appeal to readers who are interested in compelling fictional representations of the economy and of masculinity. It is a solidly crafted, mostly conventional, but impressive debut.
Which is not to say that it has no unconventional angles. In “Make Your Move,” there is not only one alternate ending but a few. The “move” in this game is usually a counterattack or sexual advance, which appear to be the only options for the self-conscious narrator. He’s a tough guy who dissociates himself as the second-person “you” and wonders whether any of his imagined options would “be a believable story.” Although Bertin’s hardened driver strains credulity at times, somehow tagging along with some teenagers on a camping trip and seducing one of them, the plots and their grimy masculinity are believably the kind of story for the narrator’s ironic voice. Rejected again at the end, he peruses some ceramic castles in a pet shop: “There are eight different kinds of castles, eight different colours, eight different ways to go, so you buy them all and are happy with your purchase.” He imagines people around the castles “with their whole lives ahead of them.” We know, however, that the real people of Bertin’s gritty realism can’t buy their way out of their lives.
Thus, the detritus of consumer society in the titular “Bad Things Happen” is the dark secret of the outwardly beautiful Jason, and in “The Narrow Passage” it becomes “a temple in the making.” It is a temple to which the adults sacrifice their children—a clear allegory about the destruction of the natural world and the likelihood that not this generation but one of the next will suffer because of it.
In sharp contrast, Gary Barwin’s world view is so youthfully creative that it can’t easily be read as cynical, even though there are many horrors in the short and postcard fiction of I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457. One such horror is the use of a stun gun on an immigrant at the airport: “He fell to the floor. A man made squid.” Bertin focuses on the violence of few options, but Barwin usually diversifies the world. In I, Dr. Greenblatt—a book now full of my marginal check marks—my favourite story is “Coffee, Newspaper, Eggs,” which explores how two people would live if they shared a pair of legs: “Ours was a vibrant tango of intersecting free will, a mambo up the relationship decision tree.” When the legs run off on their own, the narrator’s partner asks, “How are we going to do without the legs?” The answer: “We’ll find a way . . . First coffee. Then eggs.” The snappy comedy of the rhyme and the generative symbolism of the eggs are telling examples of Barwin’s outlook. He is always seeking parallel universes, always cracking open new points of view. In “Brave Cape,” the point of view is a snowman’s. In other stories, it is a cow’s, a tree-boy’s, a bird’s. In “The Tell-Tale Heart Retold: A Tale Told by Heart”—you guessed it. Whenever Barwin’s prose seems to have become perplexingly metaphorical, as in “The Sleep of Elephants,” along come character and plot. In “The Lollygagging Prongs of the Six-Bar Blues,” Fred and George compare metaphors of love: “Love is a bright fork retrieving pickles, Fred says, munching on a sandwich.” For Barwin, the ordinary and the extraordinary are never far apart—and that’s very good indeed.