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January 31, 2012

Stopping for Strangers: by Daniel Griffin

The stories in Daniel Griffin’s collection Stopping for Strangers are the kind of of stories that will annoy people who think that they don’t like short stories. Those readers who want to know what happens next, who require certain closure, who like a beginning, middle and end. Because Griffin’s stories aren’t so tidily structured, and he’s situated them so that the main action is usually taking place outside of the frame. Inside the frame, what is going on is more subtle, ordinary moments made extraordinary by what we perceive will happen later, but the context is not the point, rather the moments are.

There is a rawness to the book’s design which suits it, these stories of characters operating by impulse, living by (barely) wits, leaping before they look, and not always landing on their feet. Many of these are characters whom life happens to, whether due to lack of initiative or stronger (terrible) forces. Half the stories in the book are about sibling relationships, about the unlikelihood of these connections that also happen to us, and the complicated nature of the obligations inherent in these connections. Though just as little choice is exercised by the characters in romantic relationships, many of whom are forced to confront the challenges of parenthood too soon: “The first time I got pregnant, it was like the baby was stealing our youth… And then when I miscarried, it was like we were robbed again, and so I got pregnant again.” Which is the definition of a vicious spiral.

“The Last Great Work of Alvin Cale” was a finalist for the Journey Prize in 2009, and has the most breadth of all the stories in the collection. In less than 20 pages, Griffin evokes decades of history, the life story of a middling artist who is surpassed in both love and talent by his son, and how he uses his son’s death to selfishly fulfil his own means. “Promise” is narrower in its focus, but with great detail and characterization that illuminates what comes before and after, the latter to devastating effect (and ambiguous effect too, which will frustrate some readers, but others will will find engaging). It’s a violent story of loyalty and futility, and why we do what we do even when we know it doesn’t matter.

“Stopping for Strangers” is a remarkable set-up, a brother and sister who stumble into a stranger’s house via an encounter with a hitchhiker and find themselves in the midst of a nightmare (in Trenton Ontario, no less). It’s the kind of story wherein almost nothing happens, but everything nearly does, and the tension is overwhelming. Atmosphere too permeates “Lucky Streak”, which is not as successful as the other stories in terms of narrative, but creates a fantastic sense of place, time, nostalgia and doom. “Mercedes Buyer Guide” is another story in which a car brings unlikely characters together, a 1981 Mercedes with a trunk full of junk and an envelope full of money.

These stories hinge on connections, the moments that are the point of these stories, the “there and then” as opposed to whatever comes next. Subtle gestures that mean more (or don’t), how these connections illuminate the distance between how characters are perceived as opposed to who they think they are, the unbridgeable gaps, and connections so close they’re causing friction– these are the details that tell us everything. And really, this is what a short story is for. Griffin’s will be beheld with great pleasure by readers who already know that.

One thought on “Stopping for Strangers: by Daniel Griffin”

  1. Rebecca says:

    I know I like short stories, and I think Daniel Griffin is brilliant, but I didn’t know about this book. Thanks for drawing it to my attention–must buy!!

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