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There’s much to admire about Kerry Lee Powell’s first collection of short fiction, Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush. Powell is masterful with metaphor and has an easy, quippy tone that keeps these 15 short tales zipping along — even if they’re anything but light.

Actually, these stories are outright bleak: readers should prepare themselves for themes ranging from poverty and violence to child abuse, disability and depression. Not a single story rises above the collection’s general preoccupation with misery — and the collection does suffer from this limited scope, even if each story is well wrought.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Kerry Lee Powell’s characters often look to the mystical to escape difficult situations. </p></p>

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Kerry Lee Powell’s characters often look to the mystical to escape difficult situations.

The Montreal-born Powell might be attempting to provoke empathy in the reader, and she often succeeds. In Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, she searches out the dusty corners and forgotten spaces of the city — its weathered bars, strip malls and chain restaurants — and finds the lonely: inspiration-less artists and inadvertent squatters, bullies and cross-dressers, disconsolate immigrants and victims of violence and mental illness.

The title story highlights Powell’s knack for contrasts. In it, a couple is forced to deal with the after-effects of a random, brutal attack at Los Angeles’s Magic Mountain. The unnamed narrator must cope with the horrible juxtaposition of hilarity and suffering she witnesses, first at the amusement park and then at home in the person of her damaged boyfriend.

In several stories, characters mired in difficult situations look to the mystical to help them escape, and Powell’s delicacy in these stories is wonderfully successful. In The Prince of Chang, the narrator gloms on to a sympathetic stranger named Beauregard with a near-supernatural gift for listening to other people’s stories. The narrator lives in a house that "feels so insubstantial that each time I open the front door I’m surprised to find a three-dimensional space with walls and ceilings. One day I will step into a whiteness." Beauregard offers not annihilation but friendship.

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Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up? features a broke academic who takes a job grading first-year Shakespeare papers at a small-town college, mainly to escape an abusive ex. She takes a class in kung fu and befriends the instructor, Sal. "I’m just here to unlock the ancient secrets of the masters," she tells him. "The secret is that there is no secret," he replies.

The fabulous In the Company of Others pairs two very different lives. A performance artist takes refuge in a café one night and shares confidences with a perfect stranger, a fat and tastefully dressed woman. She has always harboured dreams of moving to Vienna; he once dreamed of moving to Japan.

But more than travel, he has been looking, for years, for a glimpse of two antlered performance artists who once disrupted his university final-year show: "Every piece, every show I ever did after that, I was looking for those antlers in the crowd, waiting for those sometimes kind or sometimes wrathful hands to descend. The longer they don’t appear, the starker and flatter my world becomes. All my work, even that big Japanese diversion, has been addressed to their absence."

The paintbrush of Willem de Kooning, a Dutch-American painter, created abstract images; in her collection of stories, Powell’s images are indeed abstract, with an internal logic that pushes them to a shared goal. The book’s thesis might be that urban life alienates us. It could be that our homes and possessions cannot contain us. Or it could be that human life is richest in the margins.

Regardless, readers willing to brave the dark corners of those margins will find themselves rewarded, even if the insights come with a heavy sigh.

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg writer.