The Young in Their Country

By Richard Cumyn

Richard Cumyn is a writer who likes to open doors. The stories collected here resist pigeonholes, being narrated by young and old voices belonging to men and women, Jews, Muslims, and old-money WASPs, people working in laundromats, insurance offices, hair salons and high schools. Along the way we get to see how bladder bags operate and learn how hair plugs are installed. One has the sense that the author has actually done some research into all of this.

Despite this range, certain elements are recurring. The stories often involve peripheral violence that the narrator is drawn into as a bystander or unwilling participant. Relationships have an off-center quality, many of them involving unforgiving breakdowns or unrequited loves (the laundromat owner for one of his clients, a hairdresser for a gay female impersonator). And the world of the workplace – the things people do from 9 to 5 – is addressed more fully than in most literary offerings.

The writing is characterized by a somewhat stiff formality in its use of language, a deliberate style that tries to fit just a few too many words in a sentence and that never seems quite natural or in rhythm. Perhaps the best story at resisting this tendency is the Jarmanesque “The Goddess Throws Down,” which has a refreshingly restless pace and energy. Also very good is the title story, whose slightly unhinged narrator – a high school teacher with a unique way for making history come to life – provides a similar spark. Just as often, however, Cumyn’s prose and even at times his dialogue seem stuck in a low gear that never fully engages. The characters and their environment are all nicely imagined, but one wishes Cumyn would take more chances when it comes to the actual words on the page.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2010.

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