Don't Miss This Train

Review of Barry Callaghan, Between Trains (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2007).

The finest short stories teach us to apprehend with renewed clarity a world that habit and tired assumptions have reduced to an indistinct blur, and at the same time explore through their dark suffusions of meaning the de-creative and transformative power of the story-teller’s art.

Barry Callaghan’s exhilarating new collection begins with an unfolding bundle of jests on just this subject. An older writer—who goes unnamed, though his speech rhythms, melancholia and hip-flask of bourbon all suggest Edmund Wilson—has joined the narrator at a small railway station to talk about story-telling. The two elliptical stories he tells touch on their own tutelary relationship. In the first, a bereaved horse-trainer fends off a younger man’s commiserations with a riddling colloquialism that perfectly makes the story-teller’s point about how “anything that’s really real in the past—like a death—keeps coming at you out of the future.” When the narrator doubts that this Yankee koan could actually be a story, he tells a second still briefer tale that “another writer once told me in Paris when I was about your age.” It’s Somerset Maugham’s gem about how the tables were turned on him by a schoolgirl whose class he had informed that any good story “is all about brevity, religion, mystery, sex, aristocracy and plain language.” She promptly wrote one that summed up his aesthetic: “‘My God,’ said the Duchess, ‘I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it?’”

Since Callaghan’s station-house story-teller will accept neither laughter nor complaint, he and the narrator sip whisky together, between trains, between the words that form a story and the pause in which its meanings unfold, in a silence “still as still waters could be.” That stillness, the older man has said, is what defines the best storytelling.

Midway through this book, in “Paul Valéry’s Shoe,” Callaghan writes movingly of the self-devouring struggle to bring a story to formal perfection, to the point at which it becomes true to itself. Yet the mastery evident throughout this collection is not merely formal: the truths arrived at through these stories’ laconic restraint, their unerring rightness of voice and tonality, are also, one feels, deep truths of the human heart—and dark truths, unflinchingly confronted, of recent history.

In “Dog Days of Love,” a story of wonderful tenderness, an old priest devotionally attached to the Shroud of Turin returns from reconciling two parishioners to his and their own imminent deaths to find his dog Anselm chewing the Holy face out of his replica of the Shroud. There ensues a strange transaction, a urine-soaked embrace in which the old man, comforting the animal that has cowered from his anger, blasphemously finds in its terrified and loving eyes what “must have been the real look in Christ’s eyes as He hung on the cross.”

A different tenderness, joyous and erotic, shines through “A One-Night Stand,” a delicate and tone-perfect story of love between an aging blues musician and a ventriloquist. Other stories take the reader, no less persuasively, into madness and violence—the deep mourning of a woman for her stillborn child, the haunting vigilante vengeance of a blue-helmet sniper on war-criminals in Bosnia, and the howling insanity of rural-gothic religiosity.

The collection’s longest, riskiest and most astonishing story, “Drei Alter Kockers,” hovers between these two poles of redemptive tenderness and violence. Two of the three old crocks of its title are Shoah survivors, one a hat-maker, the other a loan-shark and former Auschwitz kapo. The third, Al Rosenzweig, is a home-grown Toronto gangster whose friends, we learn in an earlier linked story, call him Piano—not because he once strangled with piano wire two mafiosi who wanted to take over the local gambling scene, but because for years he has played Irving Berlin and Cole Porter songs on the piano on Thursday nights for Shoah survivors at a Bathurst Street social club. This brilliant narrative stands comparison as a tour de force with the best of Isaac Babel’s stories of Benya Krik, the king of Odessa’s Jewish gangsters; and it is perhaps not accidental that the hitman who gets the last word in this and another story shares the surname of Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption and one of the great Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century.

Between Trains is the work of a master at full stretch.

“Do yourself a favour,” Al Rosenzweig says in offering a slice of cheesecake, but might equally well say of this extraordinary book: “it’ll look good on you.”