Lawrence Teitel is only six when we meet him in the opening story, “Property.” But he is set in his ways. When a new and odd kid in the neighbourhood intrudes on Lawrence’s property, playing with one of his toys without permission, Lawrence is merciless in his condemnation.
A fact adults tend to forget about growing up is that there is no creature more rigid and more fierce in clinging to the status quo than a child, probably because no one has more invested in believing the world is a comprehensible place. In Weiss’s second story, “The Book,” an aunt comes to stay with Lawrence’s family and when she begins to change the household’s daily routine, Lawrence finds himself in a perpetual state of protest. “There were right ways and wrong ways to do things,” he says, “and I wanted things done properly.”
Weiss has a keen eye for the milestones of childhood, from a death in the family in “The Book” to a child’s curiousity about the Holocaust in the title story. Weiss’s nine linked stories don’t cover a lot of chronological ground – Lawrence is 13 and celebrating his bar mitzvah in the last story, “Envelopes” – but what it does cover it covers thoroughly.
The author also has a remarkable memory for the minutiae of the time and place he is writing about – from kids sneaking whiskey sours at a bar mitzvah to mothers playing Rumoli in the kitchen. In “Man and His World,” Weiss conveys for Montreal baby boomers all the anticipation that preceded Expo 67.
Whoever said nostalgia isn’t what it used to be would be sure to get an argument from Weiss. Living Room is unapologetically nostalgic, which proves to be both its strength and its weakness; while Weiss evokes childhood convincingly – its bittersweet surface, its sights and sounds and smells – he seems less interested in exploring its deeper, darker, and more complicated emotions.
When Weiss errs, it tends to be on the side of subtlety; he doesn’t push his characters or their circumstances very far. Maybe this is because Lawrence is a timid boy and even when he tries to step out of that timidity – in a story like “Minorities,” where he briefly befriends a Gentile boy, of “Short Cut,” where he builds a treehouse and gets his first sense of freedom – he is still taking baby steps.
Living Room also has the weaknesses and strengths of its form, the particularly Canadian linked short story collection, or “short story cycle” as its called on the back cover. The individual parts of the book can sometimes be less compelling on their own – more like vignettes than stories, in fact – than they are as part of the whole.
But it also means these stories, taken together, provide a touching portrait of the pleaures and the pains of growing up. Weiss captures something true about childhood – about its wonder and its pettiness – and while the stories may be written in a minor key, Living Room achieves more than a minor effect. mRb