Saturday, February 11, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 19th Review - Red Wolf, Red Wolf

A short while back I reviewed W.P. Kinsella's Russian Dolls.  One of the stories included ("Truth and History") was actually reprinted from his earlier (1987) story collection Red Wolf, Red Wolf, so I decided to check out Red Wolf, Red Wolf from the library.  In some ways it is a bit more typical collection than Russian Dolls, in that a few sports stories are included.  "Billy in Trinidad" is a short story featuring Billy the Kid playing a pick-up game of baseball in Trinidad, Colorado.  "Elvis Bound" revolves around a former baseball player (mostly in the minors but a few trips to the Big League) and his relationship with his Elvis-obsessed wife.

I particularly enjoyed the introduction where Kinsella talked a bit about the inspiration for some of these stories, whereas the linking material in Russian Dolls was more evidently fictional or meta-fictional.  Interestingly, Kinsella says that he usually doesn't write truly autobiographical stories, but he does take short interactions with people he meets and then uses them as a starting point for stories, imagining their back stories or projecting them forward in time.  (This technique was used several times in Russian Dolls, though here he claimed that his muse, Christie, was the one asking him to fill in the details.)

In the Red Wolf, Red Wolf introduction, Kinsella said that his single greatest influence was his grandmother, Baba Drobney, who was a great storyteller.  He also said that he was indebted to Flannery O'Connor, whom he considers the best American short story writer.  "Red Wolf, Red Wolf" is a tribute to her, imagining a scenario where one of her characters comes to life (somewhat akin to Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author) and comes to live with her.  The Red Wolf in the title stands in for the skin rashes that are often an outward mark of lupus.  O'Connor suffered from lupus for the last 12 years of her life, ultimately dying at an early age (39) of complications from the disease.  It is quite a tribute to her fortitude that she wrote 2 novels and 2 dozen short stories after her diagnosis.

Probably the most successful story in the collection is "Lieberman in Love," which is about a wealthy man torn between two women -- a prostitute and a married rental agent.  Incidentally, this story is the only one from this collection included in The Essential W.P. Kinsella. "Lieberman in Love" became the basis for an Oscar-winning short firm, which is somewhat intriguing given how much sex is in the story, and it isn't clear to me how far the director actually took this.

Sex is also at the heart of "Elvis Bound."  The former baseball player is happily married to his wife, except for one small thing -- she will only make love to him if she can see the big poster of Elvis in their bedroom.  He finds this creepy.  The resolution to this dilemma is unexpected and comic, if somewhat unlikely.

There were a few stories that didn't do very much for me, but the only one that I really didn't care for was "Something to Think About" which becomes an elaborate revenge fantasy where a woman expresses her distaste for the rigid application of church law when her husband can't be buried in the Catholic cemetery.  It felt too much of a thought piece where Kinsella was working off his rage against people, particularly those of a religious bent, who make assisted suicide more difficult than it really ought to be.  It becomes perhaps a bit eerie viewed in light of the fact that Kinsella ultimately died through physician-assisted death.  In the mid 1980s, he most likely wouldn't have been thinking about that as something that would be directly relevant to him, though perhaps his family members had gone through painful deaths.

The most morally suspect story is "Evangeline's Mother," which is basically on the Lolita-theme with a middle-aged man seduced by his daughter's best friend. It isn't a particularly believable story and is fairly creepy/pervy.     

Of the stories in Red Wolf, Red Wolf, Kinsella's favourite was "Mother Tucker's Yellow Duck," so it is a bit unclear why that wasn't added to The Essential W.P. Kinsella, unless he felt it hadn't aged quite as well as other stories.  This basically recounts what it was like to be living on the West Coast at the tail end of the 60s, both in Victoria and Vancouver.  One could scrape together the fare for the ferry to the mainland pretty easily (now it is over $17 for a walk-on fare!).  Life was fairly easy going, though there were people who wanted to be movers and shakers even then, so they moved to Toronto...  Kinsella makes some observations about how, even in Victoria, one was starting to see the emergence of Yuppies by the mid-80s.  The narrator finds himself torn between longing for the hippy lifestyle and worrying that this life is too grasshopper-like.  He needs to be making plans for the future, including what he will live on when he is retired, and ultimately he gravitates towards a career woman (who is going to help put him through university!) but still misses the freedom of his youth.  I'd say this story shares some of the same traits as a typical Alice Munro story in that people grow and change and that usually means that couples that were well-suited for each other at one point are no longer suitable later on.  How they handle this estrangement is really the critical issue.

Overall this is a good, not great, collection.  I would probably start with The Essential W.P. Kinsella and then decide if you want to go back to the early collections, like Red Wolf, Red Wolf, to fill in all the other short stories that Kinsella wrote over his career.

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