Raincoast Books, 184 pp, $22.95, softcover.
For all that wounded pride and dumb longing are the language of the modern man, Vancouverite Nathan Sellyn manages to put some lovely words into the mouths of the men in his first collection of stories. And there's nary a metrosexual or yoga devotee among them.
A fledgling himself (he's a recent grad of Princeton's creative-writing program), Sellyn likes men on the cusp of change: the early-20s banker outgrowing childhood friends and morals; the son stepping out of his dead father's shadow; the cuckold renegotiating a marriage (or having a marriage renegotiated without his knowledge); and-especially-boys on the frontier of manhood. Paulie is 10, and everything worth knowing comes from his 14-year-old brother, who "stole Cokes and comics from the depanneur, and knew which parts of a girl tasted of candy and which parts tasted of fishsticks.”¦He spoke to me only when he needed something done, or when he was mad. Then he would pull down my pants and laugh at my dinger. He said it would never grow unless I got a girl to rub it, and since that would never happen I should learn to tuck it between my legs." An unnamed boy in another story is maybe gay. His father "always seems uncomfortable around me, as if I was a misaddressed package that just arrived at his house one morning".
These are tales of men struggling to be hard, harder than the next fellow over. They get beat up, confuse violence with decisiveness, stave off loneliness one lap dance at a time. A few of Sellyn's pieces feel contrived, their premise too look-at-me clever ("Home Movies", "Such Sights to Show You") or their ending off-kilter-either too Hallmark pat ("You Want to Win") or too slow in coming ("The Basics of the Species", "The Helmet"). But the most successful-and these 15 stories are mainly successful-pierce their shmucks' brittle shells to sample the hollowness inside. Noses pressed to the window, we're left to wonder how we'd measure up.