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Artist comes into own in early short stories

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It is difficult to write about this new collection of short stories by Montreal-born Peter Behrens, deserved winner of the 2006 Governor General's Award for his epic novel The Law of Dreams.

For those who know the novel, Travelling Light, which is really a gathering of his first book of stories, 1987's Night Driving, with more recent ones, shows that Behrens has taken great leaps as an artist since their writing.

Not that any of them is really bad, but, to use Behrens' favourite metaphor of driving, and the journey, the author often spins his wheels, or runs out of gas at the most interesting point.

It's a rocky journey from Montreal, a city he knows well, but can't quite convey solidly, to the West, where his imagery is more imaginative, but often the stories are near clich©.

Behrens was once a screenwriter, and he is not afraid to say that he wasn't a successful one. The best and worst of the screenwriter's trade are evident in the use of striking images, framed, for the most part, in not quite convincing stories, which one can imagine on film, but who knows how a director might make them work?

Behrens also straddles the American-Canadian border: though he lives in the States, his obsession is Canada, the country he can't get away from by simply driving. This tension is interesting, but, again, blunted.

Some of the 23 stories are, to be sure, strong, especially the ones on the various troubled relationships of fathers and sons. A Cup of Tea is the best of these.

It is impressionistic in feel, and within its three pages is all the rage, love, despair, impatience and guilt one feels at the relentless aging and eventual dying of a loved one.

"The dying man's voice is missing here. What about it, Dad?" the story's protagonist asks. "Are you seeing everything? Are you snow blind?" The son feels only Montreal's cold, and the need to fly back to California.

Also powerful is Ice Story, an unusual love story, which is really about how a story becomes more important than reality; how the telling of it proves one has emotions.

In Fire Stories, an author remembers a classmate, Shaun, who told stories of survival in various fires. It is about how the past can't be left behind, even though the author has a life far away from where he started.

Behrens, in most of the stories, is relating his inability, as Thomas Wolfe first put, to go home again. One is, in the best stories, reminded of former Montrealer Clark Blaise, another writer who straddles the border in his work.

The Western, or road, stories are a mixed bag, and contain most of the outright failures. There is a sentimental edge in some; clich©s of the young traveller witnessing the exigencies of raw life in others.

Some, like Interstate Heaven, with the hitchhiker and two clearly crazy brothers, read like the B-movie one has seen over and over.

Or Lyle, about an increasingly dangerous boyhood acquaintance, is well observed, but unsurprising.

Disconcerting as the failures are, still, here is one writer you want to trust to take you safely on his artistic journey.

We are willing to go through the weaker material to be astonished by the stronger. He proves in these stories, though admittedly, with some caveats, that The Law of Dreams, which followed them, was not a fluke. We see the artist coming into his own in the best stories in Travelling Light.

Rory Runnells is artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

Travelling Light

By Peter Behrens

Anansi, 279 pages, $19

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 J7

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