‘Overwhelmed’ would be the appropriate word to apply when I thought of putting this review into words. Kevin Canty’s A Stranger in this World delivers on every aspect on the craft of writing while mesmerizing a reader in a diversity of eerie, tension filled stories. This collection of 10 short stories is the first material I have read by this author and I must admit, it had been a while since a book made me stop reading all other books I was reading until I finished it. An even greater challenge was forcing myself to take it slow and savor the style and mastery of the executed words, suppressing the desire to succumb to the electrifying storytelling.
I love a story (even in a novel) where an opening line grabs you and throws you into the story immediately. Most of Canty’s stories achieve this feat and here are a couple of my favorites:
On the verge of divorce, they headed for Florida: an island in the Gulf, a place they remembered as a refuge, dolphins, pelicans, vodka-and-Cheez Whiz picnics.
from ‘Moonbeams and Aspirin’
Marian is in the bedroom, Saturday afternoon, talking to her sister on the telephone, when her two year old Will walks in with a plastic bag over his head.
While the structure of the stories follows that of the traditional short story, one story in particular was different. They were snippets of scenes one or two paragraphs long, and they were each titled, which give them a theme: a character, an image, a function and so on. This had the marvelous effect of zooming me into each specific moment. I would interpret the title in the context of the story so far and make a prediction of its relevance to the forthcoming snippet. Canty then holds my hand and stirs me along down his trodden path. The genius is, the title is simple enough to give you a picture of where the story is heading, but how it unfolds remains the charm.
He slumps in the passenger seat, fat and regal, fumbling a Merit out of the crumpled pack on the dash. The inside of his car is lika an ashtray with chairs.
from ‘The Victim’
Themes that Rattle
There is an array of moving and disturbing themes in this collection that require a master story teller to keep you interested and appreciative of the stories. Canty writes about a manipulative alcoholic mother whose husband and kid would rather disassociate with, in ‘King of the Elephants’. He writes about a mentally handicapped girl having sex with a guilt ridden boy in ‘Pretty Judy’. He writes about a cancer patient who accepts his dying condition while everyone around him is in denial and won’t utter the word ‘cancer’ to him, in ‘Great Falls, 1966’. And the list goes on, one brilliant theme after another.
I would have to say that my favorite story is ‘the Victim’ mentioned above, both for its originality and the jolting tension. A scene that particularly stuck out was where a couple ended up in a looser’s overturned caravan, in the middle of nowhere, with a gun pointed at their heads:
“All right, girlfriend,” Lyle says. ” You can do me now.”
A sudden, sickening conviction sweeps through her, the knowledge that this was all her fault, that if she had been smarter or stronger or somehow better, this would never have happened, and tears of futility and rage – rage at herself, at her circumstances – began to form in her eyes.
“You think I’m fucking kidding?” Lyle says, tapping her temple with the barrel of the gun. “Take it now, girlfriend.”
“Leave her alone,” Bobby says quietly.
I discovered this book by chance at a second hand bookstore and fortunately, intrigued, I purchased it. I’d gladly buy it now that I know what it’s worth. While I’m inclined to say that I look forward to reading other titles by Canty, I’ll refrain from doing because I discovered previously that this can sometimes be quite a disappointment, like when I compared two books written by Hannah Tinti and I recommended one and not the other.