The Sound of All Flesh

By Faustus Salvador

A review of The Sound Of All Flesh by Barry Webster

Published on May 1, 2006

The Sound Of All Flesh
Barry Webster

The Porcupine's Quill
$19.95
paper
170pp
0-88984-280-9

Let’s get straight to the gist of it: Barry Webster is a lexical virtuoso.

Some of the short stories in The Sound of All Flesh have appeared in journals across Canada or been short-listed for prizes, and each of them attests to Webster’s obvious worship of words. The most pyrotechnic-filled example comes in the opening story, “The Royal Conservatory.” Picture The Cat in the Hat possessed by James Joyce, Cole Porter, and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s practically indecipherable, a vertiginous sound performance piece of invented words and ornery cadence. The narrative asks a lot of its readers, many of whom might make the mistake of believing that the rest of the book contains more of the same, but ultimately it’s worth the read if only for its sharply rendered, phantasmagoric imagery.

There are more approachable stories here as well. Many of them are hauntingly elegiac. “Laughing Forever,” a grim account of a young boy with a clown-phobia, promises to be darkly comical yet ends on a disquieting note. In “A Piano Shudders,” another boy must come to terms with opposing influences before a critical piano examination. The standout story, “The Innocence of Water,” follows one swimmer’s obsessions after he survives being entombed in a pool by a fallen ceiling. Broken and endlessly wary, Webster’s characters wander unbound in a world defined by shifting borders.

A few of the stories suffer from their lyricism. “Earthquakes on the Far Side of the World,” a story about a geologist in a futile love affair, buckles and finally collapses under its plodding rock metaphors; it reminds me of Jeannette Winterson at her purplish worst. Luckily, these occurrences are rare, and Webster keeps a staunch grip on narrative pace for most of the collection.

The Sound of All Flesh is an arresting book from a writer not only well-honed in his craft, but in the spectral machinations of words themselves. mRb

Faustus Salvador is a writer whose articles and fiction have been published in England, Japan, and across Canada.

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