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A Short Journey by Car

By Mark Abley

A review of A Short Journey By Car by Liam Durcan

Published on October 1, 2004

A Short Journey By Car
Liam Durcan

Vehicule Press
$16.95
paper
204pp
1-55065-189-7

Right from the start, Liam Durcan’s debut collection of stories rips free of convention. That title may conjure up visions of a sensitive coming-of-age narrative, almost certainly autobiographical. Think again. Somehow I doubt that Durcan could have had much to do with the narrator of his title story, a dentist co-opted to fix Joseph Stalin’s teeth in the 1930s. As it happens, short journeys are among the very few things that Durcan’s characters share. A luckless driver of métro trains in Montreal, a trucker smuggling oversized toilets through the Windsor-Detroit corridor, a teenage girl searching for missing foals on the prairies, a drunken passenger in a taxi in rural Vermont: they all try to vanquish a quiet desperation by keeping on the move.

None of these characters, on the surface, would seem to have much in common with the life of a Montreal neurologist – which is Liam Durcan’s day job. Presumably his work demands both insight and precision: hopefully it also requires compassion (an overused word, but in this case hard to avoid). Those are, I’m delighted to say, the exact qualities – rather than any easy similarities of setting or plot – that distinguish A Short Journey by Car. Its sixteen tales cover an astonishing amount of physical and emotional territory, in which the author is conspicuous by his gifted absence. As you turn the page onto a new Durcan story, you have absolutely no idea where he’s about to fling you.

I speak, by the way, as someone who tends to prefer novels to short fiction. As a reader, I often find the short-story form frustrating. But the authority of Durcan’s voice, along with its galloping unexpectedness, soon won me over. Admittedly, a few of the briefer pieces in this book seem little more than technical exercises – a bit like piano studies in an unusual and difficult key. (In his next collection, perhaps Durcan should make sure that the stories are all more than seven pages long.) When he gives his imagination room to take flight, the results can be dazzling.

In “Lumière,” for example, Durcan speaks in the voice of a Parisian maître d’hôtel at the Grand Café on boulevard des Capucines in 1895, a man who watches what’s generally described as the first public showing of motion pictures (all of them very short, of course). At first the man thinks “that these are certainly ghosts and that I must avert my eyes to save my eternal soul, but I cannot look away.” Before long, “the ghosts are no longer threatening but now enchant us,” and the kitchen staff have rushed off to see for themselves, leaving “not a soul to witness pots still on the boil and the smell of meals imminently becoming cinders. It has been abandoned as though to an invading army.” The story is a triumph in miniature – not only does it brilliantly recreate a key moment in cultural history, it also suggests the impact of that moment on human perception.

Durcan is already a master of relinquishing information slowly – which is a fancy way of saying that he likes to keep his readers on their toes. The surprises at the end of “Control” are eminently guessable; alas, I failed to guess them. Likewise, I was four pages into “dollyclocks” before it dawned on me that the little boy in the story has Down’s syndrome. When I looked back at what I’d just read, I wondered how I could have been so stupid. (Despite that stupidity, I could still take pleasure in the story.)

All in all, A Short Journey by Car is a remarkably intelligent collection. It’s also remarkably humane. mRb

Mark Abley is now writing a book about the future of language.

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