Fiction Review by Michael Kenyon

Kris Bertin, Bad Things Happen (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2016). Paperbound, 202 pp., $19.95.

Bad Things HappenI'm impressed. I'm very impressed. This first book is line by line quite brilliant, the stories varied and beautifully turned and paced – tragic, yes, but at times very funny; the voice is consistently informal, the tone sincere and the choices essential.

Kris Bertin wrote these fictions between the ages of twenty-three and thirty. They are first and foremost character-driven, and readable in the page-turning way that might suggest that style is secondary. Even though he says in an interview, "I just come up with the characters and the conflict and let them run the show. Then I get to watch a movie in my mind, and that's the story," these stories are stylish. And they are marvellously structured, experimental too in a quiet way, though they do not draw overt attention to themselves. Bertin employs various approaches and points of view—first, third, and second-person narrations, male and female narrators—while maintaining a distinctive voice (Maritime—he's from New Brunswick),and his themes are global in their implications, touching on specific psychological problems (loneliness, isolation, disconnection) in rural, small town, and city locations; and beneath all, the engine that drives these tales is a kind of "love in the ruins," to borrow Walker Percy's 1971 title. The stories do not boast about themselves, but they accomplish a lot. And somehow they don't come across as dark, though they are all full to bursting with human pain, and sometimes almost unbearable suffering.

I have thought a lot about male writers and the characters they create, what, back in the twentieth century, we used to call "anti-heroes": Beckett's Malone, Hamm, Vladimir and Estragon; Updike's Rabbit Angstrom; Alan Silitoe's Smith in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"; any number of Woody Allen male figures. Kris Bertin's men in Bad Things Happen got me thinking once again, and I believe the term "anti-hero" can be buried. This young male writer, in any case, is not ruled by anger or beligerence, nor is he identified with the hapless, comical, doomed, self-conscious and high-strung male protagonist. I sense, through these stories, that the existential crisis (viz Sartre and Camus) at the heart of many twentieth-century works by men has bloomed in this century into a different sort of crisis. And we have a new kind of hero.

When the depressed, or stressed, narrator of the apocalyptic "The Story Here" responds to her husband, who is trying to rationalize subdivision development and human population growth, with: "I know, but it still really sucks, doesn't it?" I get the sense that we are way beyond anger and narcissistic peevishness and into a simpler and wider field right next door to end-of-days despair but with a view of the distant mountains. Nervousness abounds, and there's a sense at the close of many stories that this might be the last gorgeous flowering of a plant about to die rather than one more existential crisis (read philosophical awakening) in the history of humanity.

If there's a conspiracy being cooked against us humans—as Jack in "The Eviction Process" thinks there is against him—then its construction is man-made and rooted deep in the human condition. And maybe this conspiracy is eternally linked with such good embodied moments as the one with which this bright new writer ends this story: "I put my arms around him [Jack] and press his head to my chest … same as my father would do when something scared me, same as his father did with him, and so on, all the way back down the line to the very start of everything."

Closing the book, looking back at it through the window of the final story, "Your #1 Killer" (about a mother's helplessness in the face of a troubled and possibly psychotic son), the sense that something is wrong here rises. Something is deeply and unknowably wrong with us, and this is, perhaps, what this book of stories is about—something is wrong with us for which only dumb love and telling the story can provide a little solace, a little company. We're still in Sartre's existential dilemma, but now, these days, the gig is up, or if not "up," close to something that could be transformation, but might also be the last scene of the last act, with characters looking around at one another saying things like: "Let's say you're a tough guy. And by that I mean you're confident, self-assured. You don't take shit from people but you don't go around starting anything either" ("Make Your Move"). Or things like: "No one's in charge. Not on this floor, or in this house, or on this parcel of land. Not anywhere along this road, not even where it ends and branches out in every direction, like lightning" ("The Narrow Passage").

The children have been abandoned at the end of "The Narrow Passage," and the world they are distracting themselves from by watching television is brutal. But they are being witnessed by an adult trying to make sense of this world. Perhaps, still (I sense Bertin waving at us), when there's a little time left over from all the repetitive work we have to do to make ends meet (the ends that keep unravelling), or when we look up from trying to forget the enormities of suffering across the planet by pulling out our devices, such good storymaking can provide ground for the integration of grace and dread.

—Michael Kenyon

As in The Malahat Review, 196, Autumn 2016, 116-118