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October 19, 2011

Once You Break a Knuckle by D.W. Wilson

On Monday, I compared D.W. Wilson to Alice Munro in a Twitter post, and got called out by a few people for being off the mark. Upon rereading my post, I could see how it my point was misconstrued– I forgot that Alice Munro comparisons must necessarily denote Greatness, and I didn’t mean to do that. D.W. Wilson’s short story collection Once You Break a Knuckle reads very much like a first book, lacking in precision and assurance, but there is promise here, evidence of a good writer whose best work is still before him. Which really, in a first book, sometimes, is all that a reader can ask for.

But I stand by my Munro comparison, though I know I should be comparing Wilson to Raymond Carver and commenting on the raw, violent masculinity afoot. What I couldn’t stop thinking of, however, as I read the stories about Will Crease sparring with police constable father John was Flo & Rose, and the Royal Beatings,that violent dynamic of family life with love at its root. About class and how both families are of and apart from their communities, and about the communities themselves, Wilson’ s real-life town of Invermere evoked similarly to Munro’s Hanratty (or Jubilee). And how Wilson seems preoccupied with certain ideas, characters and story lines, returning to them again and again to examine them from various angles, as Munro has also done throughout her story collections and throughout her entire career.

I agree with Steven Beattie’s comment that the Will Crease stories in this book have the feel of ” chapters in a novel searching for a through-line”. My favourite story in the collection was a Will Crease story, but the one that seemed most discrete from the rest, “Don’t Touch The Ground,” about a young person’s act of vengeance with tragic consequences. The collection’s longest story “Valley Echo” was also strong, and its structure reminded me of Munro’s ability to telescope time.

There is a class division throughout the collection between “the hicks” so feared by Will and his friends, and the down-and-outs themselves–  I found myself longing for a connection as in a story like Alexander MacLeod’s “Light Lifting”, which would have shed considerable light on both sides. Though there were other kinds of links, most particularly the Oldsmobile 1955 Rocket 88, which turns up with a few different drivers at its wheel, recurring characters, and repeated expressions about broken knuckles and picking fights, and kicking cows as well.

I got hung up on some of the metaphors– no matter how many times I read the line, “I’ve got fibrous red hair and a jaw tapered like a rugby ball,” I still can’t see what he’s saying. Then there was the line about “wineglass-sized breasts”, and I just don’t really think people should compare breasts to anything. But I underlined good parts too– my favourite passage was, “And she was attracted to him– if he didn’t, for instance, need someone to pull his head from the clouds– then Ray knew why: broken people are drawn to broken people. That’s the love life he had to look forward to with Kelly: a three-legged race.”

There is a bleakness to these stories, a sense of inevitability that Wilson goes to such pains to make clear that he takes us decades into the future, and the future is a lot like now is. In a town like Invermere, nothing ever changes, but Wilson that shows story happens all the same.

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