Earthbound by Kenneth Radu — review by Mark McCawley

Earthbound by Kenneth Radu


review by Mark McCawley


kennethraduearthboundEarthbound by Kenneth Radu
DC Books, Short Stories, November 2012
ISBN: 978-1-897190-87-6
162 pp., 5.5 x 8.5, $18.95 CAN

Novelist, short story writer, memoirist, poet — Kenneth Radu is a Quebec writer who writes obsessively in English. Author of more than sixteen titles, Radu’s body of work is quickly approaching the exactness and preciseness of a writer reaching his zenith — his short story collection, The Cost of Living was short-listed for a Governor General’s award, and he has twice won the QSPELL Prize for his story collection, A Private Performance and for his novel, Distant Relations.

In Earthbound — his most recent collection of short fiction from DC Books, following his short fiction collection, Sex In Russia: New & Selected Stories, also from DC Books — Radu continues his ongoing exploration of dirty realist narratives, finding the most extraordinary within the seemingly ordinary and banal of settings, which proves there is really no story not worth the telling (especially in the hand of a talented storyteller or fictioneer).

Of the seventeen stories which make up Kenneth Radu’s Earthbound, the individual stories “Road Rage“, “Dinner For Two” and “Oxygen” best illuminate and illustrate this point (click on story titles to read them in full).

In “Road Rage”, a civilian city driver has no idea how close to actual sociopathy he has come by cutting off the protagonist of the story, Billy:

He had risked his life for civilians and wasn’t about to lose it in a car accident caused by someone like bonehead getting out of the red car this very moment. Instead of tailing this human turd, he should have bought that soldier in the shelter a beer or offered the worn-out mother a ride home, taken advantage of her gratitude and ploughed her good against the kitchen sink, but it was against the shelter’s rules to fraternize with the down-and-out. The bitch might have said something afterwards. The young man shut the car door and adjusted his sunglasses. A bulky creature in white jeans and black tank top, more flab than muscle, he took four steps in motorcycle boots towards the garage. Man, a drill sergeant would have beaten that fucker’s ass into submission. Some guys needed training.

Billy switched on the ignition, waited for the enemy to open the garage door which he did by pulling on a strap at the bottom and stepping aside as the huge metal sheet rose above his head, flat and grey like a Sarajevo sky. If this were a real war he’d have the dude within his sights and could drop him on the spot with a single bullet through the back of the head. He wasn’t afraid of pulping the jerk: he was afraid of not stopping. Civilians were easy but unfair targets. A fight would lead to more complications which he didn’t need. What would teaching dickhead a lesson achieve in the end? He lowered the passenger window of his van and crept by the end of the driveway. The man turned as Billy leaned over the seat and shouted, giving the guy a finger.

“Hey, asshole, you’re lucky you didn’t kill someone today, you piece of shit.”

“Road Rage”, Earthbound, p.30

An even more poignant demonstration of Radu’s ability to portray the extraordinary in ordinary people’s lives with precision and mordant humour is in “Dinner For Two” when the Chinese adolescent protagonist sexually fantasizes simultaneously about his white teenage girlfriend and his middle-aged Chinese Mandarin teacher:

After a shower and before dressing to go out with Michelle, he lay down and thought of Mrs.Ch’en and the fine silk of her dress riding above her thighs. How sweet the sensations flowing through his fine and slender body, especially when he took himself in hand and dreamed of his teacher floating in the sky on effortless wings as he kept company with her, stroke after stroke in the aromatic air. Ah, the brush of fingers on her thigh, the characters his tongue traced on her skin. Could she feel him express on the delicacy of her flesh how beautiful she was like a bird in flight, like a wild swan? The tip of his tongue brushed in her flight. So insistent his body, but patience, patience, patience, she always insisted upon patience, the tonalities would come, the inflexion would come, the perfect stroke would come. He felt big, huge and hard, ponderous with the yearning between his legs.

Michelle just grabbed and lurched and almost wrestled him, repeating Willy, Willy, Willy, do it to me, until he lost control and the joy was over before it really began. After only a month of dating she wanted him to give her a ring to prove they were going steady. And she phoned every night which caused his mother to frown. The sex was fun and always better the second time after Michelle calmed down, but he sometimes felt bored and suffocated.

He didn’t believe Mrs. Ch’en would be frantic like his girl friend. Patience, patience, he could almost hear the teacherly voice instructing him, pulling him on top of her resplendent, perfumed, mature body until the heavy thrilling heat burgeoned into light, but ah, easy, refrain, perfect the tone, he gasped, he held back. Her leg wrapped over his back as he guided himself in, guided himself between the luscious lips he yearned to lick as he licked his girl friend, lips surrounded by hair soft as down, quivering, swelling, moist lips, quivering — a word he recited in a Chinese poem — her most intimate lips quivering as he began to sink gently and most certainly inside the receptive and aromatic body of Mrs. Ch’en.

“Dinner For Two”, Earthbound, p.44-45

And, lastly, “Oxygen” in which taboos of death, dying, bereavement wrap together with anger, resentment, and rancor:

Leave it to Anna’s husband to ride roughshod over her principles and disrespect her last wishes that no religious ceremony or words of any kind should be spoken at her funeral. At least my sister had left no child behind whom her husband could also not listen to. Despite promises, Phil told me over the phone that burying Anna without benefit of clergy, without reference to the fact of God, why, Jesus, it made his heart virtually stop. He had to fend off godlessness at every turn. God would forgive him for breaking his promise to the dying because, after all, he was bringing her to Him as he had no choice. By that time I was muddled by his pronouns.

I blurted out, “what the hell are you talking about?” Which is hardly the thing to say to a man addled by grief over the sudden demise of his wife, my twin sister whose dying made me want to heave up my innards beside the casket with silver rails. That, and the arrangement of giant odoriferous white mums and blue gladioli interspersed with yellow and blue freesias, blending in so well with the excruciatingly well-appointed salon. Beige drapes stood at attention like guards at Buckingham palace and the hacking priest couldn’t complete one line of his formulaic prayers without coughing up syllables tainted with blood.

Jesus, I almost screamed from exasperation, not faith, would you please spare us the consoling anodynes and give your cancer-mangled lungs a break? Phil once smacked my head because he couldn’t tolerate my happy scepticism. “You really chafe my ass with your fucking disbelief,” he had said. Then he proceeded unbidden to lecture me about God’s love and the reason why we were born. Anna had once told Phil that she’d divorce him if he harangued her about religion which he had grabbed onto like a life raft some years after they had married.

“Oxygen”, Earthbound, p.86-87

As with these and the remaining stories in Earthbound, Kenneth Radu has a unique talent for capturing critical emotive moments of his characters lives with subtle irony, sharply honed insight, and empathy.UG

IMG_0904 (1024x768)Kenneth Radu’s most recent book is Earthbound, a collection of short stories published in December, 2012 by DC Books Canada. Of the contents Radu says that many of the stories are about the collision between fantasy and reality in the private and troubled lives of his characters. Radu has also published five novels, three volumes of poetry, a memoir, and four previous collections of short fiction, including Sex in Russia, also published by DC Book. He has won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for fiction twice, and his first book of stories, The Cost of Living (The Muses’ Company/La compagnie des Muses) was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. He lives in a Quebec village where he writes compulsively in English which his neighbours, like most of the world, know nothing about. Having recently completed a novel set in Russia and Montreal, he is currently working on a series of linked short stories.

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