When a new work of fiction’s described as “gritty,” I’m on alert for a pseudo-streetwise collection loaded down with drugs, despair, bad sex, etc. etc. Been there, done that, says my Good Reading gene and I move on. But don’t make that mistake, dear reader, with Jerry Levy’s debut collection of stories, Urban Legend. Gritty it may be, with an assortment of aggrieved and even demented characters, but Levy’s wit and his assured, confident voice allow the reader breathing space and even a chuckle or two in the company of messed-up people.
As the book’s title might indicate, the structure of these stories owes much to the telling of folk tales, often setting up what feels like an archetypal legend spiked with a wry, contemporary twist. In “The Golem of New York,” a man who suffers the death of his fiancée begs a rabbi to bring her back to life in the form of a mythic figure made of mud and clay — a golem who, in Jewish lore, comes to assist communities in times of crisis. The rabbi obliges, but the golem’s “assistance” both backfires and heals.
The title story involves an elusive young woman who suspects she might one day become an urban legend, a bank robber with “no marketable skills” who displays, among other things, the author’s gift for snappy opening sentences. “The way I’ve always done it is to insert three Valiums into balled-up hamburger meat,” says the female narrator who, like many of Levy’s characters, is under-(or un-) employed, bookish and angry at society’s indifference. Thank God for her droll sense of humour. “There are pros and cons to robbing banks for a living,” she says. “It’s easy money. I mean, it’s not like working nine-to-five. The hourly rate is quite good.”
Folklore takes a literary turn in “Margellons,” the story of a poverty-stricken writer (critiqued as a highly derivative one) who takes a bizarre job which not only makes him ill but pushes him over the edge, turning him into a cheesy copycat of a brilliantly realized Dostoyesvky character. And In “Stolen Words,” a man asked to claim the effects of a woman he met in group therapy uncovers a stash of first-rate unpublished fiction. Publishing the stories under his own name, he achieves easy fame — a vicarious thrill for any writer reading this tale. Read it and find out what happens.
There’s an underlying fatalism in these stories. They inform us that our world doesn’t treat its young well. Sisyphus rolls the rock up the hill, only to see it slide down again. Life hasn’t much to offer these bright kids, all of whom are endowed with a profound sense of the ridiculous. If a character must grow and change (as writing workshops tell us) then why not change for the worse?
In “The Anarchist,” a young woman from a comfortable but unhappy family background gets caught up in the G20 riots that rocked Toronto in 2010. Later she comes upon an injured animal which she can’t identify. She nurses it back to health and returns it to the wild, but when it doesn’t survive, neither does the gentle world she’s begun to experience. There’s a direct parallel to this story in “Phoenix Rising,” in which a woman about to jump off a bridge spots an injured cat on the highway below and rescues it, becoming a local celebrity. Her luck changes; her sculpting career gets a boost, she makes friends, and a carpenter offers free repairs on the ceiling beams she pulled down in a failed attempt to hang herself. While the cat’s fate loads the ending with grim irony, the scene when the woman wrecks the ceiling in her hapless suicide attempt is a true gem of black humour.
If there’s a problem with this book, it’s one shared by many first story collections that follow through on a theme (including my own Missing Persons). Jerry Levy is writing, albeit in a quirky and imaginative way, about varieties of loss and after a while, it’s almost inevitable that elements of repetition would enter the stories. In Levy’s case, almost all of the characters are middle-class, well-educated, often aspiring artists, all on society’s edges. The writing is assured and clear, and the characters are, for the most part, sympathetic, but it’s not always easy to distinguish one individual voice from the next.
Yet his material is also the stuff of legend, where it’s OK (up to a point) to generalize, to create character types and to draw conclusions about human nature. Levy is currently at work on a novel. I’m looking forward to more of his quirky voice, his uncommon hybrid of old-fashioned mythmaking and postmodern irony.
Urban Legend by Jerry Levy is published in Saskatoon, Canada by Thistledown Press (2013).