I never read faster than when I’ve found a short book written by someone I know. It’s especially true when that short book by someone I know is also a good book.
That’s the experience I had blazing through Dominant Traits, a collection of short stories by Eric Freeze. Eric and I went to the same high school – the one I came to in grade eleven and into which I never became fully socially integrated. He was in the show-choir/theatre scene and I was an egghead poor-girl whose only extra-curricular pursuit was a part-time job. We were not close. But in a small school where everyone had some knowledge and experience with each other, Eric and I had good will between us.
This good will, our high school, writing fiction, and seeing it published aren’t the only things Eric and I share. We have both set stories in the same southern Alberta town where we went to school, the place that inspires his “Ridgeview.” We both write fiction deeply rooted in real life. I read his collected stories out of sequence and noticed real life first in “A Prayer for the Cosmos” when the narrator refers to an infamous pep rally where dear old Ridgeview High School made a casual racial slur against an exchange student basketball star playing for a rival school. Something like that really happened.
Then there was the story about the awkward white rural kid who thought of himself as a rapper. When I first came to Ridgeview, I assumed this kid must have been playing a character, trying to be funny. He wasn’t. It was excruciatingly embarrassing. I tried to ignore him. I guess it worked. I hadn’t thought about him for decades. He’s probably grown up and put his rapper days behind him. But then, in Eric’s “Francis the Giant” story, there he is again, not grown up at all, falling down on-stage in this MC Hammer act, and I can’t look away from him. Eric’s fiction folded the kid’s story into the accordion fan I hadn’t realized it had always been for me. There was the real kid, his act, my initial confusion about the act, the fictional character arising from the kid, and then the hallucinated transformation the character makes within the story, changing from a scrawny teenager to a giant, leech-flinging monster. We are everyone around us. We’re folded into accordion fans with everyone we know. Their stories are rightfully ours, the opposite sides of our own folded surfaces.
“He’s doing it,” I thought as Eric’s stories started to bend into my own experiences.
I do it too. Last night, at a literary event in Edmonton, I read one of the chapters from my novel that is crafted very much like an event from my family’s real story. Afterwards, as I signed her book, a nice lady asked if the book was fiction or not. I grinned, “Yeah, it’s fiction. But it cheats.” She seemed pleased. Readers love cheating.
Though I’ve been on the giving end – force-feeding my family, friends, and high school classmates doses of our histories, fictionalized, printed, bound between the brittle, narrow margins of my perspective — I don’t think I’d ever been on the receiving end of this kind of storytelling in so direct a way until I read Eric’s book. Seeing it from the other side had a much greater impact on me than I expected. I didn’t just smirk knowingly and say, “Ah, yes, it’s this.” Instead, my heart lurched inside me when I realized Eric’s “Torched” – a piece about a roofing crew grappling with the tenuous mortality of men early in adulthood — includes the story of a boy from our school who suffered an oddball head injury riding a bike in the dark. Even though he seemed to recover from the accident, he suddenly died from the injury a few years later. It’s weird but true. There’s a monument to it in Eric’s book.
It was good for me to read Dominant Traits. It ambushed me even after a mutual friend, the eye on the cover, and my cursory grasp of ancient Ridgeview gossip warned me the book was closely connected to things I had seen and heard for myself. Reading it helped me consider my own writing in a new way, with greater empathy, with more tenderness and patience for what I demand of everyone.
Here was another writer not only playing my game but playing much of it on the same field – the same place and time. Sure, his “Ridgeview” is different from mine. He lived there as an insider (compared to me, anyways) and as a boy. Unlike Eric, I would probably never attempt a story about cattle castration. That is not my Ridgeview. But I knew the convenience store, the comically wide roads, even the squeak of the gym floor, though I usually only heard it through closed doors.
Closed doors – that brings me to the point where I prove I don’t give old high school classmates free passes in book reviews. The collection, in many ways, is men’s fiction — if the prevailing literary privilege will allow me to talk of such a thing. It’s smitten with the male problem of imagining erections and ejaculations are far more salient in the world outside their own pants than they actually are. The other half of humanity rolls its eyes, scoots to the cold side of the bed, and tells those Very Important erections to just go to sleep, for crying out loud. I’d like to see a man my age write a meaningful, earnest, literary love story without any penises in it. I’m not protesting out of stodginess. I’m protesting because I’m tired and disappointed with male (and often female) writers taking the slimy, easy shortcut to writing about intimacy. Work at sex and intimacy in a different medium once in a while, fellas. Feel free to prove me wrong with examples in the comments.
In the age of “post-fiction,” writing from life is accepted and understood, sometimes preferred. Maybe it’s not considered cheating anymore. I don’t believe in creation ex nihilo – that everything we know must have been created by some kind of magic out of emptiness. I don’t believe in it physically or artistically. Ex nihilo nihil fit. I’d wager Eric Freeze doesn’t believe in it either. Everything created is organized out of pieces of things that are here already – Big Bangs exploding whenever someone or something comes crashing through us.