This post is part of the LRC’s 25 year anniversary project. We are asking our readers for the most influential Canadian books published in the last quarter century. For more information, click here.
Measuring the impact of a book of short stories on public discourse requires an instrument that has not been invented yet. It would be like trying to gauge the effect of the whip-poor-will’s call on the price of light sweet crude. Relatively few people read Canadian short fiction, but those who do—other writers, for the most part—talk about their favourite story collections with a mixture of reverence and envy. The effect is catalytic.
19 Knives has been such a creative spur in the fifteen years since its publication. It travels hand-to-hand, subversively, outside the limits of the usual surveillance. Young writers become intoxicated by its jazz, its concision that still manages to embrace the large difficult questions, its crazy optimism. When I met Mark Jarman in Fredericton, where he teaches at UNB, I told him that his book reminded me of Barry Hannah’s writing. He beamed; the virtuoso Hannah, wild-man bard of Mississippi, had been his teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, 19 Knives couldn’t be more Canadian. Where else might we expect to see Margaret Atwood, Don Cherry, Leon Trotsky, Maurice Richard and Kurt Waldheim turn up as characters in the same story?
Michael Bryson, writing in Quill and Quire, called the stories in 19 Knives “fade resistant.” Time has proven him prophetic. One especially, “Burn Man on a Texas Porch,” is a devastating, operatic tour-de-force that proved, as A.S. Byatt wrote championing the book, to be “something new.”
Richard Cumyn is the author of eight books, most recently a collection of novellas, Famous Last Meals (2015).