Fiction Review by Colin Loughran

Mark Sampson, The Secrets Men Keep (Vancouver: Now or Never, 2015). Paperbound, 177 pp., $19.95.

The Secrets Men KeepMany of the thirteen pieces of short fiction collected in Mark Sampson’s The Secrets Men Keep investigate the silences, secrets, lies, and fantasies that men erect as emotional barricades between themselves and those they love. For all their modern sensibilities—and Sampson’s protagonists are a relatively enlightened, cultured, bookish bunch—they’re also often desperately insecure, blind to the inherent fragilities of heterosexual male identity. While these stories demonstrate some sympathy for men who find themselves adrift, they also frequently lampoon the sustaining fantasies of virility through which they cling to traditional notions of manhood.

The collection begins with its richest story, “Going Soft through Luxury,” which explores how the unspoken can come to define intimacy. It opens when a phone call announcing the death of a child interrupts the quotidian rituals of its thirty-something protagonist, for whom married life seems defined by the small indulgences of “a few preprandial olives in the late afternoon and a whiskey with an ‘e’ before bed”—in his own words, he believes he’s become the “final, stable version” of himself. As a man with “so few reasons anymore to be strong,” though, he struggles through embarrassment and guilt to respond to the legitimate pain of the child’s mother, a woman for whom he’s long carried a torch. Ultimately, it’s his wife who demonstrates real emotional strength by extending sympathy to her husband’s obvious crush. Sampson’s prose here is sharp—he employs the second-person, deftly navigating a nostalgic entanglement of past and present—and it’s full of telling details that betray the cracks in his protagonist’s sense of security, whether it’s the ever-shifting circles of a Venn diagram that define a relationship or a necktie that’s tied a little too tightly (“Strangling you like she secretly knows all your secrets”).

“The Man Room,” meanwhile, plays like a satire of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, depicting an embattled husband who must defend his territory not only from the possibility of home invasion but also from the encroaching responsibilities of being a family man. Having relinquished his ambitions in favour of a baby carrier, Donald can’t shake the feeling that he inhabits a dystopia in “some queer, futuristic novel” about “far-flung circumstances that he couldn’t have imagined when he was younger.” At the core of his flight from responsibilities lies the safety of the Man Room, a homosocial space where he gathers with his buddies—men with names like Rocco, Jake, and Grilse—to “drink craft beer and play Xbox and talk about man things” under the auspices of a preposterous taxidermied hawk: “Only under the suspended pose of the hawk did life feel even marginally in sync with itself.” The story’s climax, in which Donald and company form a triumphant dogpile atop a middle-aged home invader, renders their assertions of machismo hilarious and a little sad. When Donald’s wife rolls her eyes at his need to constantly retell the story of the home invader’s capture, so too might the reader. In fact, women play a vital role in these narratives as figures who call men back to the demands of reality from whatever fantasies of manhood they inhabit; the collection as a whole suggests that men might have a great deal to learn from their perspective. There’s enough variation here to keep the stories fresh, but “Going Soft Through Luxury” and “The Man Room” certainly establish a pattern of fractured, stunted manhood.

In “The Rock Garden,” an inversion of the Pygmalion myth, Sampson exposes the reactionary dynamics between misogyny and vulnerability in his portrait of a man obsessed with carving statues of his sexual conquests, women whose bodies he declares “ought to be turned into stone.” Both “Cycle,” which calls to mind the scandals of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods, and “A Fantasy,” which similarly dismantles any romanticism surrounding the life of a writer, exhibit the failure of traditional male role models. What’s on display in many of these stories is not only the quiet lives of desperation of these men, but also the dreadful personal and social consequences of clinging to fantasies of virility. In “Snoop,” a man carries on a petty, one-sided rivalry with a former lover—first via an alumni magazine and later by way of social media—that serves to expose his own deep-seated loneliness. And “Malware” shows us a nightmarish parody of the men’s rights movement, in which young men play a videogame called “Rape Her Now!” and participate in a “Take Back the Night counterdemonstration” dressed as a character from A Clockwork Orange and bearing slogans that read “NO MEANS buy her aNOther drink.”

The secrets men keep are often small ones in the grand scheme of things, yet these stories feel timely in how they engage with our contemporary crisis of masculinity. We live in a decade when works by commentators like Hanna Rosin or Maureen Dowd have begun to sound a (premature) death knell for patriarchy, when discussions of white male privilege have become increasingly mainstream, and when perpetrators of mass violence or online harassment all seem to share the same resentment toward women and people of colour. Though few of Sampson’s male characters are outright monsters—some express feminist sentiments, act as supportive husbands or fathers—their failings in The Secrets Men Keep similarly suggest that how we think about masculinity ought to change, that nostalgic forms of manhood have no place in the gender dynamics of the twenty-first century.

—Colin Loughran

As in The Malahat Review, 192, Autumn 2015, 98-100