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The Undertaker's WifeReview - The Undertaker's Wife
Stories
by Len Gasparini
Guernica, 2007
Review by Tony O'Brien
May 20th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 21)

In Len Gasparini's earlier collection of short stories A Demon in my View many of the narrators were boys or young men reflecting on their childhood. A lot of stories were set in Windsor, Ontario; others in various cities in the United States. There was a strongly autobiographical feel to the collection, and there were some dark moments. The quality was uneven, although A Demon in my View provided a number of memorable characters and images. The complimentary publisher's bookmark that comes with Gasparini's latest collection The Undertaker's Wife shows a smiling author, less pensive and preoccupied than in his last collection. I took this to be an indication that perhaps Gasparini had exorcised his demons. Perhaps I could expect something a little more upbeat and cheerful. The Undertaker's Wife is recognizably the work of the same author, and the autobiographical feel is still there. There are several stories in which a middle aged man reflects on his childhood and youth. Could it be, I wondered, that Gasparini is warming up to write a memoir? Overall I felt that this collection offered some intriguing glimpses although on occasion characters were left underdeveloped.

The book begins with a twenty-one year old narrator home in Windsor, Ontario, on leave from the US navy. The period is late fifties, and Gasparini gives us plenty of clues to the atmosphere. Chubby Checker, the twist, a Chev Bel Air. Even twenty-one was young in the fifties, and Frank and Millie recounts a coming of age. You can get a sense of the mood as the first person narrator, walking on the beach with the very attractive Millie tells us "I never knew there could be so much summer in one afternoon". Frank and Millie evokes an innocence that makes for a strongly nostalgic story, and Gasparini manages this without sentimentality. In the following story Absent without Leave the unnamed narrator goes AWOL from the navy and Gasparini develops a restless, moody character who holds himself aloof and can't settle. There's a clear connection to the next story whose twenty two year old narrator is called Larry, and who lives on a tobacco farm where he enjoys the company of Tina the farmer's daughter. The Grass is Greener is a gently evoked story of first love and of loss. A visit to Windsor sees Larry flirting with Millie (from Frankie and Millie) and incurring the jealous wrath of Tina. Scenes on the farm carry the scents and color of rural life as traditional values give way to those of the footloose early sixties.

In Ghosts, the narrator is back in his hometown of Windsor to bury his mother's ashes. He visits his old neighborhood. It is Halloween, and his mood is one of "melancholy nostalgia." After various reminiscences, he is confronted by the present, in the form of a cocky youngster driving a Honda Civic. The older man, distracted by his ruminations, has almost caused an accident, and although he acknowledges his fault he is offended by the raised middle finger and abuse from the youngster. The spell of nostalgia is broken, but the narrator has one more card to play. The story ends on a bitter note. Nostalgia figures in several other stories, like Ballroom Dancing for Beginners, and My Uncle Roy.

Another of Gasparini's themes is the frequently disappointed musings of the middle aged man reflecting on the stud he was. Winter Fantasy is a brief vignette in which such a man delays his approach to a bank teller so that he can talk to the young Asian woman he would have been sure to seduce in his day. A chance meeting in an Italian airport is the theme of Laura in which a very similar man becomes besotted by the young woman standing next to him in a queue. In the last story in the book, Montego Bay, a middle aged Drouillard actually manages to consummate a chance affair with yet another young woman.

Gasparini writes a good dark and brooding story. A day in June features Ellery, a dyspeptic writer down on his luck and just about everything else. He who thinks of himself as a 'sexy sexagenerian', but he really doesn't seem like it. The air is humid in downtown Toronto, and there isn't much about the day that doesn't stick to Ellery as he buys cigarettes, pays his phone bill, gazes at women and fobs off an acquaintance who tries to interest him in a snuff movie. This is followed by the title story in which a rather self indulgent poet has an affair with the wife of an undertaker. Scenes may disturb some readers.

It's hard to sum up Gasparini's style. He provides a lot of spare, terse description that evokes places and people with admirable economy. His characters, although by no means all likeable, feature some interesting and intriguing individuals with unfinished lives. The stories are littered with references to literature, and a surprising number of characters are poets. There are plenty of individuals you want to know more about. Gasparini does have a tendency to overtell, something that conflicts with his otherwise spare style. For example, there's a scene in The Grass is Greener where a young couple are watching All Fall Down at a drive in. They've recently argued about the young man's lack of commitment, something exemplified in the film by a philanderer played by Warren Beatty. More angry words between the two lovers, and the comparison is well made. Then Gasparini cuts in to have the narrator reflect "The similarity between the movie and my own situation struck me as ironic."

Is Len Gasparini writing a biography in amongst these and his earlier stories? It's something of a truism to say that writers draw on their life experience, but there's something so deeply personal about some of these stories that it only feels likely to be satisfied by making the switch to non-fiction. This sense is heightened by the apparent connections between the time, people and events in this collection. Perhaps that's only an impression, and Gasparini is simply very good at creating a complete fictional life. In that case there's a novel waiting to be written. I don't mean to demean the short story as a form, nor Gasparini's ability to capture the crucial moments of a life. But there seems to be a larger narrative connecting the episodes of these stories. The setting is Windsor, Ontario; the subject is in his sixties; the mood is both dark and comic, and there's poetry in the air.

© 2008 Tony O'Brien

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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