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Characters disasters in the making

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Replete with blood, violence and moral ambiguity, this well-crafted collection of short fiction is not for the faint of heart.

The stories tell of men with names like "Big Red" and "Last Call Paul" -- all of them flawed protagonists who lead chaotic lives. They include a fraud artist, a compulsive gambler, a former juvenile delinquent, a homeless man and a drug addict, to name a few.

First-time Ontario author Andrew F. Sullivan has seen more than 40 of his stories appear in print and online in the past three years.

This collection contains no title story. All We Want Is Everything seems to refer to his protagonists' lack of inner resources, coping skills and self-esteem -- deficits that undeniably shape their lives.

Reading Sullivan's visceral, understated prose is roughly equivalent to watching a train wreck -- horrifying, yet compelling, at the same time.

In the story The Cloud, the teenage male narrator describes the effect of a starling invasion in his small town. "I get tired of listening to my parents strangling as many birds as they can for the government. My little brother... uses headphones to block out the sound, but I swear all the chirping... sounds like popped balloons or piñatas imploding inside the walls around me."

Over half the 20 stories focus on brushes with the law. In Thaw, two characters, a policemen and a man he arrests, were once best friends as teenagers. On the way to the station, the policeman makes an effort to teach the other man an unexpected lesson. In Wrestling with Jacob, a woman befriends a lonely immigrant who frequents the bakery shop where she works. But she gets more than she bargained for when he breaks into her house one night.

Some of the narrators are young boys. In Hatchetman, a 10-year-old is about to get his neck tattooed with the odd nickname he has been given. The Week Football Stopped tells of a boy raised by a father who once served in the military and suffers from post-traumatic stress.

Several stories depict family violence. The protagonist in Good King witnesses a volatile workplace incident that dredges up memories of his own painful childhood.

The story Satin Lives focuses on a man prone to destructive acts. The brother with whom the man lives is even more concerned now that his wife is pregnant.

Occasionally, Sullivan introduces absurd details, thus leavening the serious tone. In A Bird in the House is Worthless, two men, one recently paroled, steal a TV, intending to sell it to finance a trip to California, but they can't find any customers, nor can they even give it away.

In Kingston Road, a smarmy motel manager runs a weed whacker at 3 a.m. in order to evict an immigrant family living there illegally. En route to complain about the noise, the narrator finds a toddler wandering alone in the hallway in the middle of the night.

In The Lesser Half of John A. Macdonald, a homeless man with serious lesions names each of them after a Canadian city, including our fair city (though he is less than complimentary).

Sullivan should be commended for his strong commitment to voice and his uncanny ability to plumb the depths of these characters. This is a bold and arresting debut.

 

Bev Sandell Greenberg is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 A1

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Updated on Sunday, July 28, 2013 at 12:27 AM CDT: edits formatting.

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