Stories of hope tinged with pain
STEVEN W. BEATTIE
One doesn’t read a Mark Anthony Jarman story so much as one experiences it. This is the central argument in editor John Metcalf’s introduction to “Burn Man,” a careerspanning selection of Jarman’s extraordinary and eclectic short fiction. “Jarman is, in essence, a language performer,” Metcalf writes, “a builder of rhetorical structures, a writer attacking his medium.”
The verb “attacking” is appropriate. Jarman’s stories are full of violence, in both content and language. In the historical story “Skin a Flea for Hide and Tallow,” set before and during Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn, women maraud through battlefields castrating fallen soldiers. An Italian man dies after being stabbed in the femoral artery in “Knife Party.” In “Dangle,” a father plays with his son by pretending to drop him from the upstairs landing in his home, resulting in a fatal accident for the boy. “No laws were broken,” the hapless narrator relates. “My youngest son obeyed gravity.”
The opening of “Burn Man on a Texas Porch” unfolds in the aftermath of violence — a propane tank exploding and causing massive burns across the protagonist’s face and body — but the language contains a kind of potential energy: “Propane slept in the tank and propane leaked while I slept, blew the camper door off and split the tin walls where they met like shy strangers kissing.”
“Burn Man on a Texas Porch,” from Jarman’s outstanding 2000 collection “19 Knives,” is a canny choice to open the current volume; it is not only one of the finest Canadian short stories ever written, it represents in microcosm the elements that persist throughout Jarman’s very particular oeuvre. These include a rough-hewn male protagonist nevertheless possessed of an almost romantic sensibility; a fragmented structure; and compressed, allusive language that lands just this side of poetry.
Jarman’s apparent influences are multifarious. Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah, yes, but also Alice Munro (seen particularly in the subtle movements of chronology and perspective within various stories). It is the modernist writers of the American South — O’Connor, McCullers and, most especially, Faulkner — who seem to bear the closest resemblance to Jarman on a stylistic level. The subject matter may be different — one would never have found O’Connor writing about hockey, a central concern in much of Jarman’s work — but the attitude — localized, highly specific argot; allusions both classical and contemporary; a strict attention to moments of often extreme violence — contains clear echoes of his Southern forebears.
The 21 stories in “Burn Man,” selected by the author himself, are not ordered chronologically but rather the way a musician might sequence tracks on an album, paying careful attention to modulations in tempo and rhythm and how individual pieces play against one another.
The mordant humour in Jarman’s work helps leaven what might otherwise be a series of brutal, downbeat stories. Though Jarman is rarely without hope, even if that hope is tinged with a recognition of existential pain.
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited