By Russell Smith
In his novel Noise, Russell Smith has a scene in which the hero is driving down the highway while giving his girlfriend a crash course in CanLit. “Novels are like movies now,” he ends up telling her. “They can’t be about things here.” To make his point, he waves his hand at the traffic out his window.
For a young writer that is what is known as “making a statement.” Luckily, Smith has the goods to back it up. Young Men is the third of his books to explore Canada’s hip urban scene, dealing with the same milieu as the novels How Insensitive and Noise. And while I admit that I’ve never been as hip by half as the people he writes about, I’ve always enjoyed his description of things seen in the dim light of Toronto’s life fantastic.
The stories in this new collection are arranged into sets that focus on three main characters. Along with James Willing (the hero of Noise), we have the frantically amorous Dominic, and a slightly older young man named Lionel. The concluding section looks at the lives and loves of a few young women.
While they are all nominally writers, what the young men are really involved in is the writing trade, a business that is more about marketing and self-promotion than craft and inspiration. For a satirist, this is fertile ground.
The funniest story, “The Stockholm Syndrome,” takes place in a Nova Scotia backwater where Lionel is snowbound during a book tour promoting his trendy new novel. What follows is a hilarious escalation of banal indignities, culminating in a clever twist. Lionel is not only the superior city-dweller who gets his comeuppance in the land of the lost, but also a cultural carpetbagger who finds new material in an unlikely spot.
“The Stockholm Syndrome” is representative of the rest of the stories in a number of ways. While it mocks the hicks of the wasteland, it ends up affirming small-town virtues at the expense of Lionel’s big-city attitude. It seems, in retrospect, as though Toronto is turning into a more cynical, nastier place in Smith’s fiction – characterized more and more by the selfishness and vanity of its inhabitants.
The way Lionel ends up taking advantage of his hosts is also typical of the collection. A theme that many of the stories share is the conflict between the self-centered young man’s consideration for others, and his need to use them for material. What starts off as pure comedy, with Dominic exploiting his friends to write a trashy gossip column, by the end has grown more sinister, as a Svengali-like Eddie strip-mines his girlfriend’s unconscious.
It is easy to make a list of the things that make Smith so much fun to read. In terms of style alone he ranks in a class above the pack of mummies (some still alive) who make up the Canadian Literary Establishment. He is a natural story-teller, blessed with a dramatist’s ear for dialogue and a knack for dealing with relationships in a disarmingly honest way. He also knows that in comedy timing is everything. While the stories in Young Men move at a remarkable speed, they never lose the pacing that is essential for all the jokes to work.
In addition, and as usual, Smith’s eye for the nuance and detail of the urban environment – its fashion, food, and furniture – is evident. What is less obvious, and somewhat new, is his equally sharp eye for emotional detail – the mental clutter that fills our heads even at the most inappropriate times.
A good example comes in the first story. Unable to watch his girlfriend packing as she leaves him, Dominic looks out a window and sees “boys pushing each other on the concrete. He can never tell if they are playing or fighting – a problem he has with dogs, too.”
There is more to that than mere observation of detail. Coming where it does it has a perfect touch – light, precise, and significant. And yet it does nothing to call attention to itself. It is only one moment among many in a book filled with energy, humour, insight, and wit.
Review first published June 19, 1999.