Review by Jennifer Spruit
A scavenger hunt based on this book would yield a suggestive pat on the behind with a racquet, a small pile of one-dollar bills that may or may not keep one man afloat in a foreign country, and repulsive facial hair (twice). In The Maladjusted, Derek Hayes has written sixteen short stories about uneasy people: his characters are often trying very hard to fit in or, even more humourous, thinking they fit in when they don’t. Mostly told in the first person from a male point of view, the stories in this collection take us on a world tour of the maladjusted, from Turkey to Taiwan, from the group home to the basketball court.
“A Feel for America” is about three English teachers in Taipei. John can deal with his overly aggressive roommate, Adam, by tiptoeing around until a new guy arrives. However, Samuel is unruffled by Adam’s hostile takeover of their apartment with his toenail clippings and mildewy clothes, which shifts the balance of power in the house. John becomes unsettled: “You see, this is at the heart of my current anxieties. I’m aware of how things are with three people. Usually one person is the object of ridicule, even if it’s subtle.” John must look deep into the corners of his psyche to decide whom to align himself with. This is a critical decision, not to be taken lightly. Like many of us, John’s biggest fear is being laughed at.
In the title story, Mike takes baby-steps to conquer his social anxiety. A shut-in with ample wit and metacognitive awareness, Mike “only flushes [his] toilet on Wednesday, Friday and Monday nights (before Kim comes on Tuesday).” His social worker, Kim, encourages him to let go and play a game of chess at the local chess club, but Mike isn’t so sure. “I have resisted calling her ‘Mom’, an urge that I’ve had ever since I first called her that.”
It’s easy to identify with the characters in these stories who struggle to obtain the acceptance of others: Melanie, the compulsive liar terrified of confrontation in “That’s Very Observant of You;” Alan, the I-wish-I-could-do-that race watcher in “The Runner” who is obsessed with what may be facial hair on his girlfriend’s upper lip; and Russell, an internet gamer whose mother forces him to go to Vietnam in “A Wonderful Holiday.” However, Hayes also writes characters that are not so sympathetic. “In the Low Post” is about a street ball tyrant gaining prestige by making children buy him slushies and kicking people off his court at will. Yet underneath all his bravado, James is desperate for positive attention, and competes with a rival over the opportunity to train a young player. On the surface, “Green Jerseys” is about a know-it-all teaching assistant who overrides the teacher and alienates the entire school. Here again, Hayes takes us deeper: Gus is a complex character who wants his students’ approval as much as they should want his. Hayes does so much with what is unsaid: being sensitive to how social needs affect behaviour allows some really delicious ironies while rendering those who are unlikeable (mostly) personable.
Some of the stories didn’t work for me: “Tom and Wilkie,” the history of a town over the lifetime of two men, was taking on too much of a timespan to be effective, and “Shallowness” descended too far into (you guessed it) shallowness. However, most of the stories in this collection have “an immediate, authentic feel. Like when I was up north camping and saw an owl.” That kind of authenticity.
What I loved most about Hayes’ writing is that many of his characters aren’t afraid to put it out there. From the woman who gives a painfully honest rant to confront the waiter who slighted her in “That’s Very Observant of You” to the college kid who attempts to interview his fellow students while they lather up in the shower (“My Horoscope”), these are people who have made a decision not to care so much about what other people think. Does it always work? No. But is it funny? Yes.