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A Stranger in this World
Kevin Canty

A Stranger in this World
Kevin Canty
London 1996

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Kevin Canty has written a supreme collection of short stories. What shines in the imagination long after reading A Stranger in this World, with its tales of the strange journeys taken by some of America’s twisted souls, is not just the precious descriptive detail, nor even the word-perfect pace of plot construction, but rather the sheer range and beauty of each individual narrative voice. Canty succeeds in assembling a gallery of characters who shift constantly in their psychological apprehension of the world, who move through a variety of situations which are coloured by the unstable passions of the moment, and offers to the reader insights which, if they are unsettling, are faultlessly conveyed.

The barest outline indicates the adventurous nature of this collection. We meet a boy who dreams of running away from his estranged parents, an unspecified voice which speculates about what it is to work the night shift killing stray dogs, a boy who falls in love with a retarded girl, a young woman who discovers the strange exhilaration of killing, an ex-junkie whose past returns to maim his new lover, a middle-aged couple on the verge of divorce who sit together in bliss as a blind man drives their car, and a woman bitter and strong, almost beyond emotion, because she has lost the capacity to love.

Canty’s gift is in creating these stunning fictions from the world of suburbs, highways and holiday resorts. The stories encapsulate moments of decision, possibility of tension, and focus on the bizarre psychological processes of the individual character. But the expression itself is carefully measured to maintain the link between imaginative life and reality, as in his description of a mother watching her infant son suffocate himself: ‘Miriam can’t seem to move. She can’t focus her mind on the problem but thinks instead how strange it is to see Will’s face in a different material, a cast in plastic of his head and shoulders, a something: a bust, she remembers, that’s the name for it, and awards herself a little prize for remembering.’ That the mother adores her son makes the image all the more powerful.

Canty’s confidence with language is such that he can take on such subtle shifts of character without reducing the impact of the story. Words are sharply defined but never all-embracing and always subject to the changes of the characters themselves. Every line is equal to the task of shooting between the world outside and the processes at work in the characters’ imaginations, as well as encapsulating the moments when they impinge on and influence each other. In one of the stories he writes: ‘You might suspect her of bird-watching, of having a VISUALISE PEACE bumper sticker on her station wagon. You wouldn’t imagine her naked on the bus, inviting the driver to fuck her. You wouldn’t think she had a knife in her purse, defense against a conspiracy she wouldn’t name, afraid to say the words.’ Kevin Canty makes that imaginative leap seem effortless. This is not writing that takes short cuts.

Reviewed by Simon Peters


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