Any critic who posits that Canadian writers don’t focus on the working lives of their characters really needs to read Russell Wangersky’s Whirl Away. With skillful and eerie verisimilitude, Wangersky places most of the protagonists in this new collection of short stories squarely inside the dark hearts of their respective occupations. The breadth of Wangersky’s knowledge of and research into different jobs is truly astounding and worth the price of the book alone.
Indeed, the occupational and geographic range of this collection is quite impressive. We’re given a carpenter (“Bolt”), an amusement park caretaker (“McNally’s Fair”), a paramedic (“911”), a divorce lawyer (“Family Law”) and a travelling salesman (“No Harm, No Foul”). These and other stories are spread across a number of Canadian locales, including Alberta, Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces. In each instance, Wangersky fully inhabits the life, work and place of his characters and creates a whole universe around them. He brilliantly realizes each story’s world for 15 pages before moving on to a completely new and different world.
And while Wangersky is adept at depicting the exterior circumstances of his characters’ lives, he is also skilled at capturing the tiny details that illuminate their inner turmoil. There were a number of scenes in the opening story, “Bolt”—about a carpenter named John who is accidentally killed and leaves behind a mystery for the two women in his life—that captures so well the dynamics and secrets between a man and a woman. Here’s a passage with John building a new table and Anne coming to see him:
Anne had brought his lunch down to the shop every day while he was working on the big table. She had caught him looking along the grain, his face a serious, complicated map, and when he’d seen her and straightened up, rubbing his hands on a piece of cloth, his eyes changed, like someone moving quickly away from the edge of a window and letting the curtain fall back into place.
This wonderfully subtle moment helps to underscore the deeply entrenched inscrutability that John holds in his heart right up to the moment of his death.
My favourite story in the collection is “Sharp Corner.” This tale, about a man who becomes obsessed with telling stories (much to the chagrin of his wife) about a succession of car cashes that occur at the base of their driveway due to a tight turn in the road, is a tightly drawn and symbolic exploration of psychology. The out-of-control cars can be seen as stand-ins for this man’s out-of-control marriage, but Wangersky never overplays his symbolism when making these connections. There is a Ballardian obsession with death and automobile wrecks that lends this story a creepy tone, but we never escape the deeply held emotional tension in the story either.
While not every story in Whirl Away is as riveting—the last two pieces felt a bit withered on a vine by the time I reached them—there is no doubt that Wangersky has a rich sense of story and a deeply held investment in his characters. This was a pleasurable read through and through.