Last Chance To Renew
In the title story of Scott Randall’s first collection of short stories, Last Chance to Renew, the main character, a widower, describes how he became addicted to watching daytime soap operas like The Guiding Light, thanks, or no thanks, to his late wife:
How Madga ever got him into those programmes he’ll never figure out; one day after they’d retired, he just sort of sat down beside her on the chesterfield. Just so he could relax and properly digest his lunch, really. And the next thing he knew, a decade had passed and, well, now he’s probably more or less hooked on them
Randall, who grew up in Toronto but now lives in Montreal, has a talent for the small but telling moment, evident in the above passage. The story itself is no more than an extended vignette, but it still manages to convey the nuances of a long relationship. There’s resentment here – humour, too, in Simon’s complaint about how his departed wife still gets more mail than him – but also a sense of how lost this man will be on his own.
Lost and confused men are recurring characters in Last Chance to Renew. Some bring their bewilderment on themselves. In “Cotton Ginny,” a middle-aged married man stalks a young salesgirl at the local mall, convinced he can change his life without wrecking it. Other characters are victims of sad circumstances. In “The Grace of Synapses,” a young husband does what he can to ease the suffering of his dying wife as well as his own subsequent grief. It’s not enough, of course.
Most of the characters in Randall’s stories are experiencing life as a series of tests set up for failure. In “Crisis Response Simulation,” a couple decide to take a child safety course, on the increasingly unlikely chance that they will become parents. During a trial run they panic and doom their imaginary child to a terrible imaginary fate. “Murray Imagines His Driver’s License” is about a teenage boy who learns that he has epilepsy and gradually discovers the limits it will put on his life. In “Med2102,” a medical student shares a secret from his youth with his girlfriend and reveals more about his naïve self that he intended to.
Last Chance to Renew also tests some of the limits of the short story form. In “Madoc” and “The Accident on Strathearn” Randall deliberately dispenses with any notion of narrative suspense. We know from the first lines that his characters are going to meet a terrible fate, but it’s exploring how and why that concerns Randall. “Thirty-six Exposures” and “Variations on Nailpolish as Foreplay” are also interesting exercises in fiddling with form, in a kind of fragmenting of conventional narrative.
Last Chance to Renew does suffer at times from a problem that plagues a lot of short fiction: the inability to crack the ending, to make it satisfying without making it obvious. The option, as it occasionally is in Randall’s collection, is to choose neither. As a result, some stories either stop abruptly or simply sputter out.
However, the best stories – like “Kincardine Breakwater,” about a couple coming to terms with the premature and tragic end of their marriage – are both heart-breaking and hard to put down. Randall’s talent for infusing his often quirky fiction with a core of poignancy makes this collection a promising debut. mRb