Review by Adrick Brock
Russell Smith’s latest collection of short fiction, Confidence (Biblioasis, 2015), catalogues the lives of Toronto’s has-been hipsters as they navigate the disappointments of their middle ages. Coolness is the philosopher’s stone in Smith’s world, and his characters attempt in strange and dangerous ways to hold onto or recreate the glory days of their youth. More than just a cautionary tale for forty-something men, Confidence is a study of Toronto’s identity shift into a hip global metropolis, and the flip side of all that glitz and glamour.
“Fun Girls” follows an evening-in-the-life of writer Lionel Baratelli, a one-hit-wonder trying to re-establish himself after a recent break-up. His companions for the night are three “fun girls”—women a decade younger than Lionel who make him their pet. He pays for the taxi ride to an ostentatious restaurant, pays while the fun girls order excessive amounts of food they have no intention of eating. All the while they gossip about fashion and romance and the size of other men’s penises, and nip off in pairs to snort cocaine from the bathroom counter.
The women in “Fun Girls” may be superficial, but Lionel is utterly shallow. In exchange for his suffering, he is awarded proximity to their beauty, a brief flicker of virility each time they recognize his existence. At one point, he sees friends of his across the restaurant.
“I did a radio doc with him once,” said Lionel, “with Ian. I bet he wonders what I’m doing here.”
“We should kiss you in front of him,” said Katrina.
“Okay,” said Lionel. “Who’s first.” (37)
The same desperation is true of the unnamed protagonist in “Crazy”. The man’s wife has been taken to the hospital after a suicide attempt, and while he calls friends and family to update them on the situation, while he assuages his wife of her suspicions about his extramarital behaviour, he is out visiting a scuzzy sex parlour and inhaling crushed pharmaceuticals.
It is this emotional packing that makes the book such an unnerving read. True, some readers will find these characters too pathetic to deserve sympathy, but Smith does have a knack for suspense. At its most effective, Confidence reminds us that the outskirts of personal decency are much closer than we tell ourselves.
The best example of this stake-raising tension is the story “Raccoons”. Unlike the many bachelors and childless men in the book, “Raccoons” is the story of Ivor, a modern husband and father. It starts badly for Ivor and only gets worse: leaving for a conference, Ivor will miss Mother’s Day, and his wife—incidentally a ‘mommy blogger’—is so incensed that she wages social media warfare against him. One of her Twitter posts reads:
Dr. Virpi Lummaa at Univ of Sheffield: research proves sons reduce a mother’s life span by an average of 34 weeks. Says nothing about husbands. #sciencefail (127)
If that’s not bad enough, Ivor’s hyper-curious three-year-old is a nonstop salvo of questions about the meanings of words (ingredients, proof, cabybara, and, hilariously, crack cocaine). Raccoons are burrowing in Ivor’s garage, and, to cap it off, he’s being harassed by an ex-girlfriend who accuses him of harbouring their old Hi-8 sex tapes.
We feel for Ivor. His internal monologue details a man trying to take on the insanity of the world with integrity and reason, to little effect. He doesn’t cheat on his wife or self-obsess over his own relevance, he doesn’t work in business, unlike so many of the men in Confidence. It’s the other characters—the unnamed adulterer in “Crazy”, Lionel in “Fun Girls”—which feel like easy targets for mockery.
Smith’s Toronto is a city under siege. In so many of the stories, one group of people (or animals, in the case of “Raccoons”) is invading another. In “Gentrification”, the Roma people are to blame for the squalor in a Parkdale neighbourhood. In “Sleeping With An Elf”, it’s the hipsters ruining Queen West with their pretentious tastes. Smith’s descriptions of urbanity reveal the hidden costs of Toronto’s ambitious growth. Describing the harbour in “Research”, he writes:
The water was flat and turgid. You could smell sewage. There were ducks just beneath them, swimming in floating oil […] One had a cigarette in its feathers. (29)
Smith draws from the city’s stark contrasts: the glitzy restaurants and fabulous people coexist with the grime and violence that gentrification is attempting to scrub away.
Confidence ends with the story “Sleeping With An Elf”, a concise closing statement on the theme of ageing. At a hip new restaurant, a childless, forty-something husband and wife discuss the possibility of an open relationship after years of stale monogamy. The prospect of sex with a younger woman is both enticing and impossible for the husband, Dominic, who suffers from an unnamed physical ailment that requires him to walk with a cane. His wife, Christine, agrees that it might just be enough for them to talk about polygamy.
Christine heads home after dinner, while Dominic agrees to meet at old friend at the newest, coolest bar. Maybe the old player will make it happen after all? But halfway there he decides against it, and returns to the laneway house where they live. He regards his wife through the living room window, knitting on the couch in her terrycloth bathrobe. We understand that this is the crux of Confidence—a world divided between the relevant few and the washed-up many—and we wonder if Dominic will join her on the couch and end his evening safely, or if he’ll follow the same Icarus-like compulsions of the other characters in the book, and head back out into the night.
Adrick Brock’s fiction has appeared in EVENT, The Malahat Review, Riddle Fence and is forthcoming in The Dalhousie Review and The New Quarterly. He is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia’s MFA program.