Rhymes With Useless

by Terence Young

Published by Raincoast Books

176 pages, 2001

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Rhymes With "Breathtaking"

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


The question you have to ask yourself when reading Terence Young's short stories is, "How does he do so much with so little?" Young is an outstanding example of the art of minimalism, conveying whole worlds with the smallest detail. The resulting stories glint like finely cut gems, multifaceted, enigmatic and beautiful.

Young's prime emotional territory is ground that is familiar to all of us: the family, that tender and excruciating realm where relationships intertwine like pulsing blood vessels. To write so simply and directly about all of this complexity requires keen powers of observation. But a great deal of the clarity in Young's work comes from the fact that it is uncluttered by any moral baggage. It is not his place to judge, but to present people as they are, flawed, paradoxical, both broken and whole and human in a way we can viscerally recognize.

Like an artist who can create a likeness with a few deft strokes, Young introduces his characters by telling us just enough that we can fill in the rest. In the title story, Eustace (whose name, he likes to tell people, rhymes with useless) describes his wife Billie: "She's got a tongue that'll run you down the second you step off the curb." Instantly the dynamics of the relationship spring into 3-D: the forceful, vocal wife, the "useless" husband who has literally become impotent from Billie's strictly enforced vegetarian diet. ("There are two types of people in this world," she says. "Those who eat meat and those who don't. It's that clear, Eustace.")

As if to regain some sense of power, Eustace regales Billie with a long, rambling, suspiciously tall story about how he once had his hair cut by a then-unknown Joni Mitchell. As the story comes out bit by improbable bit -- the work gang up north, the car wash where Joni had a summer job -- Billie's curiosity begins to show through her scorn: "The girl at the gas station," Billie said. "You're not about to tell me you stumbled on Joni Mitchell killing time as a pump jockey. Not the Joni Mitchell who sang at Woodstock. You can't expect me to buy a lie as dumb as that."

Yet the spell of the story works, as this bit of dialogue reveals:

"What did she look like?" Billie asked.

"Blonde, thin."

"So was I, once."

"I remember."

By the end of his rather odd, convoluted story we know more about the balance of power between Billie and Eustace -- not to mention their abiding affection for each other -- than we would have thought possible in a mere 14 pages.

Though Young's stories deal with what could be called everyday people -- teachers, Xerox technicians, clerks at the liquor store -- there is almost always an undercurrent, even a macabre one. In "Too Busy Swimming," Tony, a teacher away from home at a conference, stays at a "no-star" motel called the Scotsman's Palace and contemplates adultery with the tempting Leona: "She was one of those bullets a man has to dodge, and I did, but only just." His wife Doreen is a cleaning contractor who deals with the aftermath of fires, floods and other domestic messes. Young does not have to point out that Tony is an insensitive jerk, but lets him reveal it himself in this scene:

I was telling Sam about a boy in my class who'd found his older brother shot in his living room.

"The news said the kid shot himself 'to death'," I was saying. "Have you ever heard anything so stupid?"

"Well, he did, didn't he?" Sam asked.

"That's not the point," I said. "You'd think the guy was just sitting there on the sofa plugging away until he was so full of lead he finally died. All they needed to say was he shot himself."

The fact that Tony is more concerned about redundancy than a boy's life reveals volumes, but the murky subtext becomes even creepier when he reveals that Doreen had to clean up the bloody carpets and walls after the suicide: "She found bits of bone and brain all the way into the dining room." When the "conference" turns out to be an inquiry into allegations of child sexual abuse at Tony's school, the story's thin veneer of normalcy is peeled back to reveal its heart of darkness.

Young is especially concerned with the tender area of family estrangement and our groping, imperfect attempts to reach across the gulf. In "Pig On A Spit," 13-year-old David Mayhew has been living in glittering Paris with his mother, who is about to marry a man David can't stand. He demands to spend some time with his real father, Peter, a rough-edged character who writes poetry and makes candles on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia. At first it is as if David has landed on an alien planet. The main social event on the island is a pig roast:

An electric motor from Bill's defunct washing machine turns a sprocket that moves a bicycle chain connected to a propeller shaft salvaged from a beached trawler. Transfixed through both anus and mouth, a pig that had spent his days fattening himself for this very occasion stares straight ahead, as though in death, as in life, he is performing his duty.

But by story's end, some subtle alchemy has taken place in the connection between David and his taciturn father as they play a game of bocci:

David moves toward his father. They stand close together now, as though seeking protection from rain or wind. David hands him a green ball and, as Peter lofts a shot into wavering obscurity, David follows it with his eyes. "Good one," he says. "Good one."

It is in the little moment, the unexpected flash of soul-nakedness that Young's gift truly shines. A mother and her estranged daughter quarrel over her newfound fundamentalist religion. "Sometimes," Avril spits at her mother, "I don't understand why you don't just kill yourself." A retired teacher whose wife has just died clears out junk from his attic, lamenting to himself, "If only there were a garage sale for all the garbage we carry around in our heads." Another character is "disfellowshipped" from the Jehovah's Witnesses when he marries a nonbeliever. "Shunned: the standard punishment for smokers, adulterers, skeptics .... Letters to his mother still come back unopened. Allan closed his eyes, hung on, like Jacob. He let the anger burn until it flaked away like sunburned skin, tender underneath, healing."

Young knows about the subtle miracle of healing and how it can happen even under the most adverse circumstances. There is a valor in these characters as they struggle towards each other, sometimes clashing in the kind of anger that can only come from love. Though Young is not exactly detached, he does leave enough space to let the people in his stories reveal who they are in word and gesture. This is an enviable grace, yielding a prose that is clear and unforced, breathing out an unmistakable sense of reality. | March 2001


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.