What Men Know About Women
by Ron Smith
Published by Oolichan Books
233 pages, 1999
Refusing the Darkness
Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman
A black and white portrait of a beautiful woman, her bedroom eyes averted. This cover come-on for Ron Smith's What Men Know About Women hints that his collection of stories is about male-female relationships. "Sometimes," he tells us directly, "stories are a path to the heart. Other times they show us our place in the world. Like dreaming eyes refusing the darkness of sleep."
There is much for the heart in this varied collection. All are about our place in the world. Ten of 11 stories are told from a male point of view. Eight are set in British Columbia; one in a pub in England and one on a road trip through the American West. The settings provide opportunities for characters to interact, to communicate, to create possibilities for intimacy.
These stories are about people we know -- man and wife married 50 years; old childless couples who measure their lives in draughts; parents who chaperone their children's teams; children who learn everything they know about sex from dirty jokes; a middle-aged man checking into a treatment center; old friends talking in pubs; veterans who don their Legion blazer and beret to meet the neighbors; gardeners; teachers forced into retirement; men attending conferences, alone away from home. Indeed, my personal favorite stories are the two set on the edges of Vancouver Island, "The Plimsoll Line" and "Shade." In them, I learned about island places I have visited, about people rooted to the land, bobbing with the rhythm of the water. Haunted by injuries and memory, old men with sea lion eyes loll like abandoned bulls who have lost their place in the herd. These stories explore our need to drop anchor, our longing to be rooted in the universe.
Read individually, Smith's stories are about relationships. Read as a collection, they are explorations of longing, of desire. "A man is granted two wishes by the little people.... Desire is a bottle that never empties." (From "Untitled.") "What is it you desire, really desire?" the red-haired stranger asks the man in the street; she shows him a picture of himself. (From "Desire.") "Watching her eyes, it was like looking into a series of mirrors and seeing recurring images of himself." (From "Shade.")
In the title story, the narrator cites a Richard Ford character who says it was a mistake to put all his faith in women. This reference moves the question of desire to another level, to a desire for spiritual connection, to men seeing women as a gateway to the sacred. Desire, like the muse, appears in many guises. Traveling on perfume or music or drink. Arriving when eyes or hands meet, when energy is exchanged, when sparks fly, with an erection, a conversation, a narration, with all the things we do to keep the darkness at bay. "This is something I'd like to talk over with Jean, but for now I lie in the dark and try to harmonize my breathing with hers." (From "What Men Know.") Desire connects us and keeps us separate, anchors, roots us to both our place on Earth and in the mysterious universe.
For the short story writer, there is so much to do in so few pages. Some of these stories read as if Smith feels the pressure of the miniaturist's craft, the cramp of time. He reacts by taking a few short cuts, posting signs, billboards even, to help the reader get where he wants us to go faster, more efficiently. Even if readers risk not getting what the storyteller wants us to get, we prefer to drive, to explore on our own, with unobscured vision, without the glaring signs and arrows. This trust issue will only be cured by writing and publishing more stories (and by teaching more good readers, by writing and reading more reviews).
Don't get me wrong. This storyteller knows what he is doing and why he is doing it. Smith has accepted the responsibility to be the memory of his place, the recorder of his generation. He lines up the empties and entertains the table with a joke, an anecdote, a tale for each glass. Dumps the dregs of the last into the fresh draught for unbroken continuity. Keeping the past ever-present, the dark night at bay. That these short stories are very literary adds to the pleasure they give. Besides Richard Ford, swigs of T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Robert Kroetsch, Raymond Carver, Hemingway, masters of 20th century literature in English, flavor these brews, connecting the reader, the familiar characters and the local settings to the literature of other places. Drinking from the keg of a larger culture, connected to the vast sea of humanity whose tides breathe with the moon.
When I close the cover again, the model morphs into Greta Garbo. I want to be alone. Alone with this book, making myself at home. My second wish? I'll have another one of those. Please. | February 2000