Sunshine Tales of a Sketchy Little Town

Story collection marked by tenderness for its characters.

Tom Wayman’s short story collection, with its beautiful title, is set in the spectacular Slocan Valley of British Columbia. Yet in The Shadows We Mistake for Love, what interests Wayman is less the landscape than the people who live in its shadow, the citizens of a community strung out along creeks and rivers and logging roads, up the mountain, along the highway, and gathered into 21st century frontier settlements, their personal-use “grow shows” catching the sun in big rented windows.

This is Wayman’s second story collection. The first, Boundary Country, published in 2007, roamed from the Slocan Valley to Toronto to the Civil War–era United States. The stories in his latest focus on the valley, where Wayman has lived since 1989. They are loosely connected, with the occasional character appearing repeatedly, letting us follow his erratic and sometimes violent progress through life—and it is usually he. Yet even when there is no obvious crossover, we assume the characters in different stories probably know one another, or at least that they have got busy with each other’s sisters, wives, exes or the exes of their stepmother’s brother.

It is certainly true that the collection’s many straying men have good reason to fear that their partners will find out about their infidelities. Wayman’s Slocan Valley is a gritty, contrarian, tangled web of a place, one he casts as typical of communities outside urban centres, and in opposition to them. We meet environmentalists, marijuana growers, carpenters, loggers, lawyers, single mothers, absentee fathers, a well-armed conspiracy theorist—and did I mention marijuana growers?—who scuffle and jostle their way through the type of underfinanced lives that urban society too often regards as marginal.

Yet Wayman’s affection for the people of the valley permeates his stories. Add his folksiness, a knowing authorial irony and the occasional outbreak of corny humour, and Wayman’s collection reads like nothing so much as a warped 21st century version of Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa. Sunshine, this is one sketchy little town.

On the one hand, you have got Wayman’s salesman, Alan, trying to organize the local marijuana growers into a coffee-growing collective, despite climatic hurdles. On the other, Leacock’s optimistic hotelier Mr. Smith schemes to circumvent the liquor licence commissioners by opening Mariposa’s first “caff,” or café. A Leacockian bank teller commits suicide, discretely offstage, while one of Wayman’s characters commits an equally off-stage murder, an act of violence foreshadowed by his frequent use of the N-word.

Wayman has written 21 books of new and selected poetry, starting with his knock-out 1973 debut, Waiting for Wayman. More recently, he has published a book of novellas, a novel and the two story collections. Born in small-town Ontario, he has spent most of his life on the Left Coast, sometimes working blue-collar jobs, more often teaching college.

From the start, Wayman has been more interested in voice than lyricism, a demotic writer whose project has involved honouring the lives of working people. We read in his 1994 book of poetry, The Astonishing Weight of the Dead:

SURE, I WAS PAID WELL

but the money felt

like a thick stack of bills

had been folded once and crammed in my open mouth

so what I wanted to say

was blocked, or at the very least garbled

by the wad of dollars

and my jaws ached

with the strain of being held apart

by the cash…

Some writers twist and turn. That over-used modern word: reinvention. There is more of a direct line from Wayman’s earlier poetry to this present story collection, where working voices predominate. In his story “Green Hell,” for instance, a garrulous man named Billy buttonholes two silent travellers from Regina in the local café with a looping monologue:

Six years. I’ve been here six years this fall. A year disgracing myself as a drunk, and five since clean and sober. I ran my car into a tree the first month I was here. A few fights: in the bar at Slocan up the highway, and one time outside the Civic pub in Nelson. I’m most famous in these parts for burning down Al Craddock’s barn that first year…

In this case, it gradually becomes clear that Billy is more notorious than famous in the valley. As his account meanders through the history of local Doukhobor protests to land on his own recent confrontation with Johnny Law, the travellers seem to grow restive and finally flee, although not before Billy, or Wayman, insists on telling them, “You can tell from what I’m blabbing that appearances around here can be deceiving. It may look like wonderland, but—”

Sometimes when reading the collection, I longed for the concision of Wayman’s poetry. Well before “Green Hell” ends, I wanted to flee myself.

Other pieces can feel self-conscious, especially a couple that play with magic realism.

“What We Know About Our Neighbours” features a mysterious structure encountered by skiers where the symbolism seems hammered home, the structure an extended explication of the title. “Dwelling,” where snow falls indoors in winter, is told in such a rigorously passive voice that it feels too carefully written, the author too clearly present, although its companion piece, “Fenris,” closes the collection with a dark dream—or is it?—that adds depth and universality to what has gone before.

Wayman’s stories work far better when technique disappears into the page and we become engaged by the characters. The title novella, “The Shadows We Mistake for Love,” opens like a fairy tale: “Just because a story is old doesn’t mean it can’t be sad.” And in fact, we often want to shake the protagonist, Shannon, and tell her, “Babe, your prince is a frog.”

Yet Shannon’s emerging bravery carries us through her adventures. She arrives in the valley as a directionless grad student visiting her best friend. Jane is an editor and environmentalist who supports the Living Earth Society, a local protest group connected with a mountain commune. Hippies, Shannon’s mother calls them. Activists, Shannon counters. She tells her parents she is moving to the commune, dedicating her life to blockading logging projects that threaten the local watershed.

De facto head of the commune is the charismatic David, who scoops Shannon into an affair that quickly results in pregnancy. David is immediately recognizable as a small-time, sexually predatory guru, but not to Shannon, and Wayman skilfully charts her slow awakening while allowing David his depths, meanwhile building up a sense of the community that will support Shannon even as she grows aware that David never will.

Wayman’s collection is different from many recent books of stories in its tenderness toward his characters. It is fashionable these days to write harshly, and to set jagged barriers in characters’ way. Short story writers, many of them just out of the gate, often default to shock value in their search for attention. They tend not to be sentimental, which can be Wayman’s fault, but they can also be fastidiously inhuman.

A human book, The Shadows We Mistake for Love, looks at the Slocan Valley and says, this is what it is like. Which is a fine thing for a writer to say, perhaps the only thing. Listen, Wayman says. This is what it is like for me.