Coles, Megan. Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. Anansi, Toronto, 2019. F;3/20.
I’ve just finished writing a review of August, a novel by a capable but self-appointed tough-guy male writer whose protagonist feels sorry for himself, and here I am sitting down to talk about this apologia of victimhood from a female point of view, also pretty well- (but also cleverly-) written. What’s the matter with talented young writers these days?
The story unfolds as a Valentine’s day in the life of a fancy restaurant in downtown St. John’s Newfoundland, run by charismatic loverboy chef John who is enjoying an affair with his young server Iris. His wife George (daughter of wealthy local magnate) also works in the restaurant and turns a blind or at least unconscious eye to John screwing Iris in the kitchen. As if Iris’s misfortune (she is poverty-stricken and morally bewildered as many people are in their early 20s) weren’t enough, her even younger friend Olive, also from the outports “around the Bay” (legendary fishing villages now bereft because the fish are all gone) who lives in town barely alive with no financial or social resources is gang-raped by dreadful Roger and others in a hotel at Christmas. A dénouement occurs when all the characters assemble in the restaurant dining room and all, more or less, is revealed.
Coles is a Newfoundland native telling an expose-style story about racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic-class unfairness, and the hopelessness of beaten-down young women and gays. She claims special familiarity with her own home city and province to scandalize us entitled privileged readers into being horrified by things we can’t even imagine. You’re not going to believe how bad things are here in filthy old Newfoundland! Unless of course we read trash fiction or watch the evening news. Here we peek under the shroud of decency hiding it all and get to deny having anything to do with any of it. But it’s with delicious irony that Coles pulls us prurient lookey-loo readers into gobbling up the hooks familiar to Newfoundland fishermen. See? You like to hear about all this nasty shit don’t you? Well shame on you. You’re no better than the bastards I’ve had to live with for my whole life and am now writing about, exposing this unheard-of remote hell-hole and making sure you understand that because it is literature it represents life.
We are warned at the start of the book “This might hurt a little. Be brave.” I have, she proposes, something painful for you but which will do you good. To call this patronizing would be an immense understatement, but we are kind of curious aren’t we?
The strange thing about this story, recognized by short-listing for various local awards, is that it’s quite different from what I commented on in my review of The Best Kind of People. We are still as reader dared not to recoil at the horrors visited upon women and minorities by white straight men, so the author and story benefit from the reverse emperor’s-clothes hue and cry that critics raise (not to be accused of complicity or worse). But Coles unlike Zoe Whittal can really write. Thing is though she’s doing something sneakier than tapping into political correctness. She’s mining a rich seam of prurience with her sharp verbal skills, to humiliate her readers into seeing things her way. Hey, you get to experience a dirty teenage rape, a woman imagining herself abused in prison, public raging embarrassment of a young girl waitress … but I know you are enjoying me telling you about it. So: you are part of the problem!
I am not part of the problem and neither are Ms. Coles’s friends and neighbours and most of her readers. I spent a year in Newfoundland four decades ago and on how uber-hideous all the deadly sins of the place are I don’t buy its being any different from any other ordinary place. Much may have changed in 45 years, but Newfoundlanders were in my experience practical, down-home, respectful people who believed in cooperation and decency. Absent the specially creepy nature of the spirit of place Coles is picturing for us, all that’s left in her writing is the bare evil we see in Emmanuel Carrere’s The Adversary, and Ms. Coles dramatizing popular causes.
I don’t like the author and I didn’t like this book. Would I feel differently about it if I weren’t a comfortable professional straight white male? Ms. Coles knows what she’s doing and does it well enough to make me and I hope most readers feel cruelty, thoughtlessness, self-interest, and disregarding other people as selves, and to confirm in our minds that they exist. Also to make us ask ourselves what these things mean, how we should feel and act in the face of them, and for some of us I guess what it’s like to get hooked into a feeling of guilt by complicity. Another writer, not of fiction, Jordan Peterson, takes a different slant from Coles’s on these awful questions. Hers invites us to be ashamed and assume blame. We are expected to clean up our act, even if we’ve never even been on stage. His description of lobsters which through bravery or cowardice establish a hierarchy contains the statement “the bottom of the dominance hierarchy is a terrible, dangerous place to be.” Small Game Hunting makes the same point, but Peterson’s invitation is to “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, and Coles’s is to feel helplessly guilty for personally doing what Peterson suggests: staying away from the bottom of the dominance hierarchy. The fundamental opposed assumptions here are the two answers to the question Will the hierarchy ever go away?
I have to accept that when I assumed responsibility for other people I only did it – after through good luck and working at it – I made sure of my own stance and safety. I’m able to help other people partly because I’ve never been anywhere near having dirt shoveled onto me in the streets of an imaginary Newfoundland.
I hope this review has made you curious about this strange little book. My score for content is because I don’t like being covertly manipulated, but the one for “style” is because Meagan Coles knows how to work the ropes.