Daniel Griffin is all over the place right now. Just google him. His name’s been frequently popping up in newspapers, journals, magazines, and on blogs. Not long ago, he released Stopping for Strangers: ten polished stories that took him just as many years to write. It’s a slim collection, just shy of 150 pages, but that in no way leaves you feeling cheated.
The first story, called “Promise,” about a tense relationship between two grown brothers, sets the tone for what you’re about to embark on—a powerful, insightful, and often jolting experience of reading the messy and complicated relationships we have, mostly between family members—children and parents, husbands and wives, and particularly siblings, who are usually contrasted with one another.
“The stories are about families in crisis,” Daniel has said. “Family under pressure. People trying to connect. About young people who may have become parents earlier than they would have chosen. People who are struggling to do the right thing under the circumstances.
“People talk about these stories being dark. I don’t see them the same way. I hope I’m taking a compassionate look at the darker corners of our lives in this time.”
And so he does. Each of the stories, even or especially the ones that possess unlikable characters, are written with a deep understanding of human character and are strong reflections of an acutely observant writer. Possibly the strongest story, “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale” portrays an artist, Skylar, whose adult son Alvin, also an artist, is dying of cancer. While this brings the estranged two back together (in spite of the “years of muck built between us, a weight like undigested meat in the belly”), and we discover the history between them and feel the vulnerability, regret, tension, and tenderness between them, there is an underlying thread of obsession that runs parallel to Skylar’s grief in watching his son die. Their past a monster between them, Skylar becomes intent on studying his son’s paintings, which to him hold the mystery of both skill and the past. He look for clues to his son, and for a type of possession and inspiration: while visiting Alvin at his home, Skylar steals several paintings Alvin has done of Sylvette, Skylar’s ex-lover and model (“the source of the best work I’ve done in over forty years of painting”), and takes them back to his own studio:
Standing at the easel I turned slowly and faced Alvin’s paintings. I crouched by the first—a rich vision of a face turned raw and bloody across the top of the painting. It was as though the skull had been sliced open and the top lifted off. The face itself was green, grey and blue and I brought my brush so close to the dark shadow of the nose that it might have touched. I backed away, dropped the brush and for a moment paced the room…. At last, I returned to the painting. I raised my brush and this time it did touch.
In the early 1900s, Chaim Soutine used to send an assistant to buy paintings from hawkers on the banks of the Seine. He’d use these as a base. He’d begin from them. I’d done similar things, although never with a painting of my son’s. In one way or another every artist works from the paintings of others. We all take and we all give. It’s the cycle of art.
After Alvin’s death, while Skylar sits with his granddaughter whom he’s only just met (and who is Alvin and Sylvette’s child), instead of comforting or seeking comfort or discovering more about her, he is instead thinking about the last great works of Alvin Cale. At the beginning of this story, Skylar dreams his son tells him of his illness, but rather than driving to see him, he goes out to the woods to paint. All through the story, then, even after his son dies, Skylar’s underlying preoccupation is yet with his art. Stealing his son’s paintings, in the end, even though he does mourn Alvin, may be at least in part symbolic of reclaiming what his son took from him—that is, Sylvette.
There’s much more going on in this story, and as such it’s a richly layered and strongly characterized piece. It’s no wonder it was a finalist for the 2009 Journey Prize anthology.
The stories in this collection are quite varied, even while similar in theme. Griffin’s range of subjects often amazed me: where some authors don’t stray far outside their comfort zone in theme, setting, and characterization, these stories cover a wide range of individuals as well as specialized knowledge—about painting (his mother is a painter), guns, gymnastics, army service, massage practice, and various locations in BC and Ontario (it was neat to recognize places in my area!). Contrasted with this is Griffin’s obvious position as a father himself; evidence of this is perhaps most apparent in “Promise,” “Cabbage Leaves,” and “Lucky Strike.” These stories have a more personal feel to them, though the others are by no means less believable or effective.
In addition, Griffin’s characters are often on the brink of doing something you don’t want them to do, to go somewhere or do or say something you wish they wouldn’t; about to start a fight or shoot themselves or steal something or paint over their dead son’s paintings or lie or bet too much money or say something they’ll regret or dismount off a railing while drunk. It’s also what they don’t say or do that makes us uncomfortable. Our anticipation, even horror, or our struggle to reconcile the characters’ actions or lack of action with what we may feel is right, makes us as readers want to reach out a hand and prevent things from happening or prompt things to happen or be said, but because we can’t, there’s a lovely tension that drives the stories forward. There’s no shying away from truth in these stories; nothing is tidy and neat, not even the endings.
And a couple of those endings left me feeling slightly unsatisfied, I think because some pieces seem a bit more like sketches of character dynamics than whole stories. The collection thus seems somewhat uneven, perhaps also because they were written over several years, though the pieces are well placed within the book for balance.
Besides “The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale,” three other stories in particular stood out for me: “The Leap,” “Florida,” and the final story in the collection, my favourite, “Mercedes Buyer’s Guide.” The antagonistic brother–sister relationships in the first two are strong, the characters’ actions as well as their history evoke emotion, and both stories come full circle in the telling of them.
The last story is less dark and seems to have an element of magic realism to it. Harry, a skillfully portrayed middle-aged man with a wife and kids, and who says “Jesus weeps” as a curse because he heard someone else say it and likes the sound of it, buys a second-hand Mercedes in which miscellaneous rather conspicuous articles keep popping up—a microwave, a toaster, broken casserole dishes, a typewriter, bags of old shoes, twelve windshield wipers, a letter, and, finally, $3200 hidden with the spare tire. Harry is curious about the previous owners of the car, wants to know who they were, what they were about, what their experiences were in the car. His curiosity fuels ours, and against the backdrop of Harry’s suburban family and their exploration of the car we are told the history of the car itself and the original owners. “Mercedes Buyer’s Guide,” which appeared in the Dalhousie Review, the Journey Prize Stories 16, and Coming Attractions 2008, is well-crafted, and a strong ending to the collection.
While I can’t say I would have compared Griffin to Raymond Carver, as did David Bergen, I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. To me, Daniel’s stories are like no other’s. His unique way of putting characters we recognize into situations we can easily imagine but which are far from cliché makes him quite special. I’ll definitely be watching for whatever comes next.
And stay tuned: Daniel kindly agreed to write a guest post for us, and I’ll be putting that up here tomorrow!
A special thank you to Sarah Selecky for introducing Daniel and me!