February 27, 2020

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Smith's bad boys flip CanLit on its head

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 2/5/2015 (1762 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In his bleak, darkly hilarious new collection, Toronto author and arts journalist Russell Smith continues his assault on what he sees as the tame sensibility of Canadian literary fiction.

All eight stories in Confidence focus on the black heart of the modern male. Most of his protagonists are aging party boys having trouble cleaning up their acts.

In the opening story, Crazy, a man visits his girlfriend in hospital after she has had a psychotic episode. Her grateful mother calls him "a rock" and she calls him "perfect."

But on the way home he visits a seedy brothel. So much for perfection.

In one of longest and strongest stories, Gentrification, an under-employed man obsesses about the shabby neighbourhood affecting the property value of his inner-city house.

Meanwhile, he must try to evict his troublesome downstairs tenants, two loudly scrapping young women, and persuade his wife of the utility of his Internet porn sideline. At one point, after satisfying his wife in bed, he rolls over and finishes his business by fantasizing about one of the tenants.

Smith tends to convey information through dialogue rather than action. His characters always seem to be texting and calling each other on their cellphones.

The backdrop is always downtown Toronto. Unlike fellow Hogtown journalist turned novelist David Gilmour, who shares his debauched obsessions, Smith seldom strikes a poetic note.

"You could smell the sewage," he writes at one point about the city's waterfront. "There were ducks... swimming in floating oil. They were pecking at food cartons that had become stuck along the deck. One had a cigarette stuck in its feathers."

At least two characters in Confidence, Lionel and Dominic, first appeared in stories in Smith's 1999 collection, Young Men. Here they're older, a little wiser and definitely sadder.

In the title story Lionel, still cobbling together a living as a freelance writer, eats dinner at a trendy restaurant, navigating his way through his friends' various modes of insincerity.

In arguably the collection's funniest story, Racoons, a husband is being harassed over the phone by a former girlfriend who demands he return some sexually incriminating videotapes.

Meanwhile, he must deal with his suspicious wife, his badgering toddler, and a family of racoons that have infested the attic and walls of his house, symbols perhaps of his marriage's troubled foundation.

Now in his early 50s, Smith has been exploring the world of Toronto's self-anointed cool kids — pretentious fashionistas, upscale restaurant-goers, the coke-snorting club set — since his debut novel in 1994, How Insensitive.

Likewise, in his arts journalism, he has promoted an insistently urban and postmodern esthetic, often railing at what he thinks is the irrelevance of so much rural and historical-themed Canadian fiction.

The satiric tone of these stories, not to mention their psycho-sexual obsessions, will be familiar from Smith's other novels, Noise (1998) and Muriella Pent (2004). But these stories pack more venom, perhaps because the characters' tawdry concerns become tedious over a novel's length.

Whatever the reason, Confidence finds Smith at the top of his game.


Morley Walker is a former Free Press Books editor and arts columnist.


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