In The Lizard and Other Stories, Michael Bryson’s third trade paperback, the style is conversational and colloquial; his subjects are usually plainspoken men and confused adolescents. While not exactly gritty or subversive, Bryson’s allegiances do seem rooted in the contemporary, urban and working-class. Unsurprisingly, some of these stories first found homes in collections such as Matthew Firth’s Grunt & Groan, Nathaniel G. Moore’s Desire, Doom & Vice and Zsolt Alapi’s Writing at the Edge. The abundant dialogue (loaded with realistic exchanges and banal asides), light descriptive passages and frequent paragraph breaks means the book moves at a breakneck clip. When this is done well, as it often is, we forget we’re reading (participating in the artifice, so to speak) and slip under the spell of Bryson’s minimal narrative strategy.
“The Adulterer” is the best story in this collection. It’s a single paragraph running only three pages, but damn — its structural adventurousness and unsettling emotional manipulations beat together in the memory like some sinister metronome. “The Book of Job” — a curiously entertaining mixture of Native American and Hebrew legends — shimmers with welcome strangeness, disrupting the familiar march of Bryson’s more conventional offerings. And the story “Flight” — the second in a trio of 9/11 stories — is extremely effective in its fragmentation, depicting the spiritual and physical grasping of characters living on the crumbling precipice of history.
However, aside from a number of glowing moments, and the aforementioned gems, the majority of stories tend to bleed into one another, providing an insufficient quantity of memorable or resounding passages. At times, their narrators seem to have a hard time maintaining the right balance between superfluous and essential detail. Moreover, four vignettes (short, unnamed italicized sections — think Hemingway’s In Our Time) crop up throughout, detailing the coming-of-age of some unnamed boy. If they’re meant to be stand-alone, I’m not sure how effectively they illumine or redefine the stories they intersect, and if they’re supposed to be stages of a single piece, they fail at delivering a climactic pay-off, or even a memorable impression of character.
It must be said, though, that this is merely a problem of editorial direction. Bryson is a careful and talented writer, and when he gets rolling, the results can be magical. Losing a few of the flabby stories, as well as the vignettes, and including a few more adventurous pieces (such those in his Only a Lower Paradise, for example), would rocket this collection into must-have territory. (Spencer Gordon)
by Michael Bryson $18, 118 pgs Chaudiere Books, 858 Somerset St. West Ottawa, ON, K1R 617