COLUMN: Short stories from Corner Brook West

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Short-story collections are not my preferred choice of reading material.

Burton K. Janes

Perhaps I share the sentiments of Claire McAlphine who writes in an online article: "There’s something discontinuous about our reading relationship with short stories. At the end of each story we are thrown out of that world created by the chosen words of the author enhanced by our imagination, back into our surroundings without leaving a thread; we then enter another story and begin to build a new picture of characters, place and situations."

However, from time to time, an author of short stories will capture my attention, and I will obsessively track down whatever he has written. The expatriate Newfoundlander, Tom Finn, is one such example.

He was, as he’s inclined to say, "bred and buttered" in Corner Brook West, graduating from St. Bernard’s Academy. He worked in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and California, before taking up residence in Ottawa. He is now a retired federal public servant.

He continues to take a keen interest in the affairs of his homeland, being especially intrigued by the transformation Newfoundland underwent following the American "invasion" in the 1940s and the union with Canada in 1949.

He's the author of three books: "Princes," "Malpeque Bay: A State of Mind" and, now, "Westsiders."

A literary penchant runs through the Finn family. Tom describes his father as "a poet who failed the calling and never found his voice." Tom’s brother, Ed, is also a published author, having released his autobiography, "A Journalist’s Life on the Left," last year.

As early as 1991, Tom was writing about "the new world of my own death now unmistakably in sight on the horizon." He was born in 1931 and, thankfully, is still in the land of the living and continuing to regale readers with his writing.

Tom has a dedicated readership. According to one, he "writes skillfully." His work is "impressive," "well-crafted" and "character-driven." His sense of dialogue is keen; he exhibits "controlled use of language." He has produced "some real gems." Indeed, it has been said he "has done for pre-Confederation Newfoundland what James Joyce in his stories did for his native Dublin." High praise indeed!

I realize now I would be remiss if I failed to read Tom’s latest offering of short stories, "Westsiders of the Town of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Canada."

His publisher, Petra Books of Ottawa, suggests: "Like a ship in the mist, there emerges from these tragicomic lives, fraught with desires and delusions, a recognition of ourselves."

Tom may have left Newfoundland many years ago, but obviously Newfoundland has not left him. His fondness for the Island is evident on every page.

His stories revolve around daily life in the west coast city in the mid-twentieth century. The reader gets to enjoy the interconnectedness of the residents as they go about their (sometimes) humdrum existence. The characters remembered are an original lot.

Tom employs a stream of consciousness narrative mode, placing the reader in the mind of a given character. This writing style may not be favoured by everyone, but it serves to bring many inner thoughts and feelings to the fore. On the downside, such interior monologue leads to extremely lengthy sentences and paragraphs, some close to a page long.

One story, "Traveller," tells Jenny’s story. Boarding a train, she "dabs at her eyes, but only nods and says nothing. Leaving — she is really, really going. Away from the sulphurous town, from all the old and in-the-past, away from those two stiff figures standing bewildered on the dusty platform, all receding, diminishing to nothing."

Inquiring minds want to know, why is Jenny leaving town? Is she embarking on a carefree journey or one forced on her by personal circumstances now beyond her ability to control?

"Where would he be now, she wonders, that handsome-looking Yank, Gary, or Ray, Ray from California, the one who has touched her like that? Drinking Coca-Cola at the USO maybe, or gone altogether, more likely."

This is a hint, but readers want to know what else will be revealed. And, pray tell, what role is being played by Sister Imelda who, Jenny’s father says, "is on her way up to the very same convent school, would you believe it now, going up on the very same train that very same day, and has offered to see Jenny delivered safe and sound." Why is Jenny heading to a convent school?

Tom expertly crafts his stories in such a way that engages the reader. I’m glad I finally broke with personal tradition and read his fine collection of 10 short stories.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

Organizations: Coca-Cola, The Compass

Geographic location: California, Corner Brook West, Newfoundland Ottawa Canada Bernard New Brunswick Prince Edward Island Malpeque Bay Mind Dublin Bay Roberts

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