Lives of Boys and Men

  • Russell Wangersky
    Whirl Away. Thomas Allen
  • Cary Fagan
    My Life Among the Apes. Cormorant Books
  • Tamas Dobozy
    Siege 13. Thomas Allen
Reviewed by Shawn Syms

Contrasting conceptions of masculinity are elucidated in three recently published short-fiction collections produced by Cormorant Books and its parent company Thomas Allen Publishers. In Whirl Away by Russell Wangersky, the lives of boys and men in Canada’s Atlantic provinces are tinged with physical, emotional, and psychic pain. The male characters that populate Cary Fagan’s Giller-longlisted My Life Among the Apes execute tiny victories against frustration, alienation, and ennui. And perhaps most startling, the soldiers and citizens of Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13 experience lives deeply marked by the presence—and aftermath—of the traumatic brutality of the siege of Budapest near the conclusion of the Second World War.

Each book focuses on a particular constituency—Wangersky, East Coasters; Fagan, Toronto Jews; Dobozy, Hungarians both at home and diasporically—to suggest broader truths regarding human experience. The tensions explored in Fagan’s work are perhaps the most understated of the three collections. The Toronto-based author of more than two dozen books of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s literature is gifted with a subtle, but still frequently unsettling, touch. His stories, which frequently consider Jewish identity, explore notions of pleasure and joy, displacement, and alienation as naturally occurring phenomena in his characters’ lives.

A middle-aged man recalls a confusing coming-of-age moment in “The Creech Sisters.” Nearly a teen at a Georgian Bay cottage with his brothers and parents, he becomes erotically fixated upon two neighbouring middle-aged sisters. A schism develops between his parents after the Creech sisters attempt to seduce his father. The attempt to reconcile his nascent sexual feelings for the women with his imaginings of what his father could have done with them turns out to have a life-altering effect for the man, who ends up opting for a life path far different from the rest of his siblings.

“The Floating Wife” explores the implications of one man’s choices on his wife and family. Albert Zaretsky leads a double life. By day he is a respected Supreme Court judge but on his own time, he is a magician of a very traditional bent, to the great chagrin of his wife, who eventually leaves him, alienated by his all-consuming hobby. Michael Spearman, who teaches music in a mildewed Hebrew school basement in the tragicomic yet hopeful “Dreyfus in Wichita,” combats “the quiet thrumming of disappointment in himself ” by fashioning musical theatre from a little-known moment in Jewish American history. The titular character of “The Little Underworld of Edison Wiese” takes a raft of unhappy possibilities—a dead-end job, haranguing boss, disappointed parents, misfit patrons—and transforms them into a thing of beauty when he hosts an unforgettable New Year’s soiree in the coffee shop of a subterranean mall in Toronto’s PATH system. In smooth, graceful prose, Fagan exposes the reader to men who chart their own unusual paths, rejecting societal definitions of success and failure.

Wangersky’s Giller-shortlisted Whirl Away is characterized by more overt disquiet. Examining the place of men in both the workplace and the domestic sphere, Wangersky’s stories frequently address such themes and topics as anger, violence, loneliness, and death. “Echo” tackles the generational impact on domestic violence through the perceptions of five-year-old Kevin Rowe, who assigns an emotionally discordant musicality to the soundtrack of his father battling his mother yet again: “the deep rumble of his voice from the kitchen, not so much words as a deep straight line. And over the top of it, his mother’s thin voice, growing higher and then falling away like a ball bouncing up and down.” As the ambulance arrives, Kevin mouths words he’s obviously heard in his house before: “Bitch . . . Just like your goddamn mother.” The effect is chilling.

The reader is positioned even closer to male violence in “Look Away,” told from the point of view of a deeply unreliable narrator—drunken wife-beater Keith Pomeroy. Keith wonders where his wife and two young children have gone, and why they would have left him all alone at the isolated lighthouse where he is keeper. Wangersky crafts a portrait both surreal and disturbing, yet oddly humanizing. From his disturbed vantage point, Keith is convinced Madeline and his two children constantly play tricks upon him, making him the butt of jokes. One moment he can describe his wife’s fine looks and lively personality; the next, he strikes her without warning: “I hit her in the face—hard—on a hot July morning when she was three steps up from the bottom of the circular staircase in the light tower.” While Madeline bleeds from the nose, Keith rationalizes: “It hadn’t ever been quite like this. But it wasn’t my fault.”

Men and women both suffered greatly in the historic siege of Budapest. Over the course of a month and a half, Soviet forces wrestled control of Hungary’s capital city from Nazi Germany near the end of World War II. The result: tens of thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of rapes. The impact of the siege—and its psychic and cultural aftermath spread across time and geography—are the primary sources of inspiration for Siege 13, Tamas Dobozy’s set of thirteen stories about lives one way or another touched by this period of intense brutality.

Dobozy, a Kitchener-based English and film professor, explores the siege from multiple angles. In “Rosewood Queens,” Mariska, a young Canadian woman, struggles to understand her own cultural identity in the face of constant stonewalling from her father Miklós about his experiences during the war. Eventually she becomes an academic and reads in books about “the Red Army, men standing on women’s faces while their comrades took turns, girls young as fourteen locked in rooms visited repeatedly, and afterwards the gift of a bayonet slashed from crotch to throat.” In “The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” deaths are individualized and depicted in stark relief, as a team of zookeepers trying to save the animals whilst, all around them, citizens and colleagues are mortally wounded. Amid all the carnage and post-traumatic stress of Siege 13, the most fascinating masculine conceptualization arises in the pages of the novella-length “The Beautician.” In the early 1990s, Arpád Holló is the caretaker of Toronto émigré hangout the Szécsényi Club. Decades prior he was a censor of Hungarian literature working for the Communist Party, a secret kept from his present-day peers. For years, Holló has worn makeup and has been accused of loving men. While admitting to homoerotic attractions, Holló rejects identity categories, and recounts to a young academic researcher how he embarked on a dangerous sexual affair with his boss’ wife. Notions of disclosure and exposure criss-cross as the student must decide whether to reveal any of Holló’s confessions to his thesis advisors—or the local Hungarian-Canadian community at large.

While Wangersky, Fagan, and Dobozy each make particularly interesting statements about masculinity and male identities in the course of their work, none of this is to say that they fail to create women characters that are also complex and challenging. Each book succeeds in establishing an internally consistent realm in which character, mood, and theme unite to raise provocative questions regarding not only gender relations but also the broader world in which these are situated.

This review “Lives of Boys and Men” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 152-54.

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