Fidelity – Michael Redhill

Canadian author Michael Redhill spent ten years writing his debut novel, Martin Sloane, published to wide acclaim in 2001. As if challenging himself to master the whole of Henry James’s The Art of the Novel in one fell swoop, Redhill fashioned a meticulous and structurally flawless narrative. Told largely through the first-person voice of a female character recounting her love affair with an enigmatic artist who later disappears under ambiguous circumstances, Martin Sloane is that rare instance of an intelligent page-turner that permits readers to respect themselves in the morning. And now, in a collection titled Fidelity, Redhill exhibits a jeweler’s precision in crafting short stories. Not all of the ten pieces here are equally strong, and a few are burdened with unnecessary or arbitrary twists, but this is compelling work from a writer who is rapidly acquiring a “must-read” reputation.

Invariably cast as middle-class denizens of dreary contemporary cityscapes, Redhill’s characters are often disaffected and clueless to a fault. In the story “A Lark,” a businessman on assignment in Calgary lapses into a casual affair with a coworker. (“It was possible, it came to him, to be perfectly content in a marriage and still be capable of infidelity, and this surprised him.”) The divorced Upstate New York couple depicted in “Mount Morris” reunite once a year for a drunken evening of escalating insults and desultory sex. Their annual ritual growing stale, the ex-wife bitterly confesses to her ex-husband that she almost cheated on him when they were married. “I should have,” she stingingly tells him, “but my optimism made me stupid.” The author’s background as a poet and playwright is seen to good effect in his sharp dialogue, which crackles with undercurrents of hostility and inarticulate yearnings. He even manages the impressive feat of building tension and dread in a sixteen-page story (“Split”) comprised entirely of aimless chitchat around a blackjack table at an Indian casino.

While the less successful stories are diligent and workmanlike, admirers of Martin Sloane will expect more of Redhill. Overtly provocative themes seem to undermine the integrity of his oblique style. “The Victim, Who Cannot Be Named,” for example, concerns a suburban couple who stumble across a sexually explicit video tape showing their teenage daughter cavorting with two classmates. The story’s execution never rises above movie-of-the-week sensationalism. In “The Flesh Collectors,” middle-aged thrice-married Nathan Roth is confronted with the frustrating predicament of his current wife’s allergy to latex condoms. He reluctantly consents to having a vasectomy. Against the moral counsel of his rabbi—who is little more than a straight man for the story’s jokey premise—Roth considers a sperm bank donation to hedge his bets. The protagonist’s name is no doubt a sly nod to Philip Roth’s torrentially randy fiction. Redhill, however, lacks the prurient conviction and scabrous wit needed to kick-start this kind of ribald material. Only at the end, in a breathtaking denouement totally at odds with the sniggering tone that precedes it, does he find the astringent blend of farce and anguish that should have informed “The Flesh Collectors” from the beginning.

Worth the price of the book is “Human Elements,” a beautifully modulated first-person narrative of a depressed and love-scarred poet named Russell. Seeking Thoreauvian solitude in the woods, he rents a summer cabin beside a lake. It’s not long before his mopey tranquility is disrupted by a pair of bickering marine biologists tracking frogs along the water’s edge. After a particularly scalding argument, the woman of the team decamps to Russell’s front yard and they begin a wary but oddly healing friendship-cum-courtship. It’s fitting that this is the final story in the collection. As fine as some of the book’s earlier pieces are, they read like apprentice work when compared to the novelistic detail and bruised emotionality Redhill brings to “Human Elements.” No twisty plot turns this time, just the deep pleasure of reading a story whose characters behave in a believably unpredictable fashion. Contemplating a frog’s life limited to peripheral vision, Russell muses, “Letting life come in from the side was a wise thing…”

Bob Wake