Winner of the Inaugural Metcalf-Rooke Award
Nominated for the Butler Prize
Named one of the Globe and Mail’s Best Books of the Year
Reading from Airstream at Vancouver Writer’s festival:
These fourteen stories by acclaimed poet Patricia Young explore the small victories and lurching disappointments, losses and betrayals of the everyday with a language and style that is tautly poetic and beautifully unsentimental. A woman who cannot leave her house loses almost everything, her only companion a garrulous radio talk show host; a house fire sets in motion the end of a marriage as a couple re-examine the meaning of truth and commitment; a teenage girl cannot extract herself from a doomed relationship with a heroin addict. Innocence, and the loss of it, are handled with humour and compassion, and heartbreaking honesty. Young reveals an uncanny ability to see the mysterious in the commonplace.
We chose Airstream for the lovely aptness of the writing and for the shapes of the stories, shapes which draw the reader deeply into the differing worlds that Patricia Young creates. Her settings and characters are crisply realized yet at the same time, perhaps because of her intense focus or magnification, the stories often produce a discomforting sense of mystery. These were quite simply the best stories we read. They are an exciting new direction for an already established and highly respected poet.
— Judges’ Citation
Books in Canada by Eric Miller
A western tradition, now strongly contested, has assigned to women the province of eros (or relationship) and to men the prerogative of logos (or reason). What is lovely and admirable about this new collections of short stories from Biblioasis Press is that the author, Patricia Young, subjects the quandaries of eros fiercely to the stringencies of logos. Although Young writes of love between men and women and between parents and children, and addresses issues, such as schoolyard bullying, that aren’t new in literature, this recycling of themes dictates no fashionable uniformity of method. The book is not just good, but distinctive.
Patricia Young’s Airstream includes a short story that surely doubles, despite its independent plausibility as a tale, as a manifesto-an ingenious statement of the author’s poetics. “Hitchhike” centres around a fifteen-year-old named Jayne, who cadges lifts from strangers to get to school. Fortunately, nothing irrevocably horrible befalls this likeable heroine, who has the gift of eliciting from her rides the essentials of their lives-Jayne is clearly an author in the making. She learns about the Gulf War, she comes to intuit the meanings behind Emmylou Harris’s lyrics in “Sweet Old World”. The worst that happens is that an Echo picks her up. Jayne assesses its driver: “The artsy type, she thinks, glancing over. Linen trousers, glasses, brown loafers without socks. But this one doesn’t respond to her questions (So how’s it going? Think it’s gonna rain?), and when she stops talking he doesn’t speak.” This unpleasant driver, the name of whose vehicle implies a lack of interest in anything not originating with himself, may embody the kind of literature that ignores the world, ignores human interest, defeats reciprocity and engages (as the plot of “Hitchhike” demonstrates) in nasty, petty perversity at the expense of a captive audience.
Young’s prose is brimful of sensual particularity and at the same time somewhat racy, in its incorporation of swift, funny, and plausible dialogue. Typical of Young is her story “Airstream”. It concerns the affair between a junkie named Dill and his clean girlfriend Trudy. Trudy’s apparent freedom from enthrallment to drugs is ironic: her real drug is Dill. Young lays out some of the terms of the relationship between her characters in the very first sentence of the story: “Dill pedals slowly down the middle of the street and Trudy jogs alongside.” Thrillingly, Young compresses time:
“It was 1972, a slate grey sky. Face down on a bedside table: a Math 11 textbook, a copy of The Turn of the Screw. Sweet and sour spareribs bubbling in the oven. Next year Dill would be dead but that afternoon Trudy could hear the rush of his heart and the cook’s voice as it wound down to a wordless humming.”
Young captures the mean capriciousness of inexperienced love. Dill is, as usual, on his bike:
“Once, after rain, Dill’s front wheel skidded on the oily pavement and he fell off. Trudy reached out to help but he said no. Cutting through the golf course, she tried to kiss him but he shrank back. She stuffed a handful of leaves down the front of his shirt and he pushed her away.
‘Fuck off yourself.’
She stomped ahead, ankle-length cape flapping against her legs.
‘Not one true friend,’ he shouted after her. ‘Not one true friend in the whole damn world.’”
“Airstream” provides a frightening intuition of how pain and attachment are connected: “[Dill] took a pen out of his shirt pocket, pushed up her sleeve and wrote on the pale underside of her arm: TRUDY LOVES DILL FOREVER. It hurt where he pressed down but she didn’t stop him because he was right; she would love him forever.” The rolling up of her sleeve suggests the injection of heroin; need violates the craven and craving body. But the difference between Dill and Trudy is that Trudy is alive to everything, especially Dill, whereas Dill is dying and already deadened. Like her heroine Trudy, Patricia Young keeps her eyes and ears wide open-vulnerable but attentive. Biblioasis Press is to be congratulated for offering in Airstream a stylish, intelligent and credible book, attuned to female experience but compelling, nonetheless, to a reader such as I, who necessarily stands outside that experience.
GLOBE AND MAIL, by Jim Bartley
Journeys Into Darkness and Light
Are there are lapses in Patricia Young’s Airstream? Every book has them, but in the best they only prove the author’s humanity. This collection of stories from Young, a prolific, award-winning B.C. poet, is a quietly assured wonder. It’s a book of parts that integrate into an artistic whole, parts linked not by characters or plot but by a way of knowing and showing the world. Young gives us love and folly and pain and the unending mystery of women and men, boys and girls, with a nuance and balance suggesting Alice Munro, and with echoes of the same wisdom.
“People are many things . . . but nice is not one of them.”
Three pages in, this assessment by a disgruntled mother shades a family portrait that starts with the rosy domestic (pie-making, wildflower-gathering), segues to the irritable (“For a child . . . you’re very literal minded”), then quickly ramps up to the incendiary. Father returns from a day’s toil in the burning forest, “his skin black, his jeans and T-shirt stinking of smoke.”
Darlene and her parents live deep in the B.C. Interior, six felled fir trees blocking access to their Spartan home. The fallen giants are hundreds of years old, but Young’s point is not forest management. The clear-cutting here is interior.
Girl of the Week recreates a 1960s, back-to-school Indian summer to a soundtrack of guitar-strummin’ folk tunes and encroaching Beatles songs. Pubescent shock waves are triggered by a new teacher, the square-jawed Mr. Dickinson, who brings to class an aphrodisiac mystique of “cigarette smoke, aftershave, exotic male sweat.”
Badgered after class by tittering girls angling for discipline from their dreamboat, he tells them to “vamoose,” then looms up from his desk, wafting scent: “I’m not asking again.” The story’s title pulls it all together, gathering layers of meaning as things wind up.
The title entry, Airstream, tips us into ex-junkie desperation, but well removed from the street. We’re with scrubbed kids from private schools who party in airy oceanfront homes without a parent in sight. Trudy’s boyfriend is her beloved curse. Dill won’t see or doesn’t care that he’s sliding back into the pit. Trudy sees it all.
Waiting for Dill to emerge from a visit to his former smack dealer, she finally enters the derelict house and mounts the stairs step by step, calling his name, to silence. She finds him lolling on a mattress, zoned out. He fishes for sympathy. “Don’t be mad. You’re so cold when you’re mad.” He takes out a ballpoint and writes “Trudy loves Dill forever” on the skin of her underarm.
“It hurt where he pressed down but she didn’t stop him because he was right; she would love him forever. . . . He clicked his pen shut in a satisfied way, like a businessman who’d just signed a deal that would give and keep on giving.”
Very early in this story, with six casually dropped words, Young inserts her endpoint; then we’re led unerringly not to that end, but to her own inspired and heartbreaking conclusion. The real end is beyond the story, and we reel from the impact of our foreknowledge. Resolution is left in the reader’s hands.
This book has the poet’s subterfuge. The words and pictures are clues or catalysts that spark the reader’s own connections and meanings. Quoting isolated passages can’t begin to reveal the primacy of context here, the way a phrase or image links to and illuminates the whole.
Up the Clyde on a Bike presents a housewife as domestic as they come, home her world and her prison. She performs the mother’s duties, but chafes at the mothering. One day she hears an agoraphobic woman interviewed on the radio and weeps at recognition of herself.
Slang for Girl takes us to a faded Mexican beach resort, a “broke down palace” in the words of the bronzed young surfer who has smitten our narrator. Each curling wave and stray dog and peasant trinket vendor has the same vivid definition that Young achieves in her Canadian settings.
The final story enters grief. Young tackles the darkness and wrestles it beautifully to a draw.
Reviewed by Anne Borden
This is the first collection of short stories by Young, an established poet based in Victoria. A winner of the British Columbia Book Prize for Poetry and nominee for the Governor General’s Award, Young adapts well to the prose form. She brings a poet’s sensibility to the task, richly developing the inner worlds of her characters and often taking a non-linear approach to her storytelling.
I started Airstream as subway reading, but missed my stop (Spadina) and ended up at St. Andrew because I was so drawn into “Girl of the Week.” (At least I had a good story to give as an excuse for being late.) “Girl of the Week,” like several other pieces, is a suspenseful character study that deals with moral dilemmas that are outside of the usual fray. In it, Jean Marie Waterman keeps an almost unbearable secret from her bff, while negotiating the rough social terrain of class struggle in grade six. The strength of this piece, and others such as “Dumb Fish” and “Hitchhike” is in Young’s ability to imbue minor characters with substance. Her minor characters are few, and they are never simply foils, punchlines or wallpaper.
Young’s stories are often both startling and thrilling, much like a good ballad. She scratches a deep groove into the consciousness of her characters, and allows them to tell their side of the story without authorial nattering. Young wisely chooses the first person to delve into material such as divorce, infidelity and mourning. She has a good ear for dialogue, and like many writers has clearly listened to a lot of people tell their stories. Introducing the 15-year-old Jayne, in Hitchhiker, she writes:
People like to talk. About themselves mainly but about other things too. And Jayne is genuinely interested. She believes every story is fascinating, every person has a story to tell. And she has a way of drawing them out. For a brief time the driver forgets he’s forty and balding, forgets it’s Tuesday morning and he’s going to spend much of his life in an airless cubical drinking bad coffee. Last night his daughter ate all the play-dough and wet her bed, but these details dissipate in the blast of damp air Jayne brings in from outside. Suddenly there she is in her high boots and lip gloss asking who what why. …
If asked, she’d have to say that men are easier to talk to than women. Men, it seems, are willing to believe she has momentarily fallen in love with them.
For a poet, the transition to prose can be rocky, and Airstream hits a few bumps along the way. Perhaps because Young’s writing is so textured, it is especially jarring to be interrupted in the midst of a great description with a flashback or flashforward that can turn the experience of reading a short story into a puzzle-solving session. Working out these temporal issues is a distraction from these otherwise solid tales.
Overall, Airstream is a bold and exciting collection from a poet who has successfully found her legs in the prose world. Evocatively packaged by Biblioasis, the collection makes for excellent reading either in short spurts or in a couple of long draws. Don’t read it on the subway, though. You might miss your stop.
Anne Borden is a writer living in Toronto.
Epiphany vs. Exploitation
Airstream follows in the tradition of the Joycean epiphany; whereas World Body exploits both world and body. Patricia Young’s Airstream evokes through poetic language nuances of emotion leading to a decision; with each story one is startled by what Joyce would term the “revelation of the whatness of a thing.” Young has the command of language and depth necessary to discover, as Joyce would put it, “the radiant soul” of “the commonest object” or person. Reminding the reader of the diverse characters of Dubliners, in Airstream, the narrators vary, and the voices in which they think and talk vary; thus, although not packed full of international reference, the fictions of Airstream are far more foreign than those of World Body. Dubliners explores paralysis; Airstream examines betrayal:
A child is abandoned by her mother: “Hanging upside down from her knees, she rolls her eyes back and the woodchip playground becomes a sky. She flutters her eyelids and chants the new unlisted number, hoping her mother can hear her wherever she is.” A twenty-year old falls in love and stops caring what people think: “every cell in my body was a small closed monastic room that had thrown its door open.” A widow explains: “Doctor Whitely suggested I write these letters. He said I needed to find a way to hold onto the love while letting go. I have no intention of letting go, but I agreed to write letters in exchange for sleeping pills.” A boy hides the toy gun he’s been given by his father: “Mick loves the gun and hates it, which is sort of how he feels toward his mother because of the divorce.” A foster-parent protects her child: “A metal plate slides down over my eyes and a horrible stink hits me like a blow to the head and something long and supple slips off a shore and into the water, and then my hands are around Butchy’s neck.” A hitch-hiking teenager discovers: “The afternoon sun is a column of light pouring through the arched window at the end of the hallway, and she thinks she could tell this boy that she wishes she’d chanted at her father’s bedside, she wishes she’d chanted and sung and prayed day and night, she wishes she’d pressed her mouth to his ear and begged him not to give up, to please please hold on.” A young girl yells in defiance: “All the other girls wear leggings” and her Scottish immigrant mother answers back: “I don’t care if the Pope of Rome wears leggings.” A teenager faces her boyfriend: “Trudy accepted all of it. She looked into his eyes, the pupils like tiny imploding black holes, and she saw the truth clearly: She was as wired to Dill as he was to heroin.”
These quotes cannot capture the epiphanies which begin with the first word of the story and build with each phrase, sentence, paragraph. As suggested by her title, Young draws the surrounding oxygen in order to create each story’s combustion. The words of the stories are like air particles joining to form a high-altitude wind that blows apart characters’ beliefs and hopes. It is this wind that an agoraphobic woman blows when her husband announces he’s leaving her and the kids: “She might have been someone with somewhere to go, a woman who, having just applied nail polish, was blowing it dry.” The terrified becomes the brave.
When you finish a Patricia Young story, your bones hurt. You ache. And it’s because of the knowledge you now carry.