I'm a loser, baby!

The Coward Files

By Adriana Palanca

A review of The Coward Files by Ryan Arnold

Published on May 1, 2007

The Coward Files
Ryan Arnold

conundrum press
$15
paper
116pp
1-894994-20-5

Ryan Arnold’s greatest accomplishment in this collection is a genuine depiction of the sad-sacks of the world, caught in the quagmire of their own low self-worth and unable to adequately express their own longings even when they are, seemingly, doing just that.

One good example is Barry, the ‘hero’ of “Security.” His life slowly eroding under the weight of his fears, Barry makes one courageous attempt to connect with a woman on their first date:

I have a confession. I don’t live in North Van. I live in a basement suite in New Westminster. I can’t remember the last time I kissed a woman. My father was a cop and my sister is an even better cop. I’m a lazy, weak security guard who did less to prevent crime than the potted ferns that were planted in the food court last fall.

She, naturally, rejects him.

The speech, so thick with desperation, is so authentic that you read it twice just for the pleasure of cringing again (and perhaps also for the cool relief that as cowardly as you sometimes feel, you are not Barry).

There are one or two stories in this collection – such as “Sweet failure” and “A brief, little moment in time” – that stand out from the rest. The heroes in these two stories are no less quirky than their counterparts, no less fearful that they’ll be found out as fakes. What sets them apart is that both of them, at the end of their respective stories, show an aspect of their deeper humanity (whether good or bad) that allows the reader to see them as something other than cowards: A satisfaction that is not had from the collection’s other frequently two-dimensional characters.

It is ultimately this inability of the characters to carry the stories that will cause the greatest frustration for readers. Peopled with such uninteresting figures, The Coward Files inevitably begins on a flat note that is (pretty much) sustained until the very end.

But what more could be expected when, at the end of the second story – barely past page 30 – Arnold writes, “I remembered this is exactly the kind of story people don’t care about.”? The part of you that isn’t connecting with Arnold’s cowardly heroes lets out a sigh: Am I now locked into reading the kind of stories that people don’t care about? Your more optimistic side hopes that Arnold is being ironic, that against all odds he will make you care about characters that you would not feel any sympathy for otherwise. Regrettably, your more optimistic side may be disappointed by the time you close the back cover. mRb

Adriana Palanca is a Montreal writer and translator.

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