Standing on Richards, by George Bowering

Penguin Canada, 209 pp, $34, hardcover.

"Did I ever tell you about the time..." George Bowering seems to begin each time he launches into another story in this collection. Or maybe: "Now, you may remember this a little differently..." He's Scheherazade in Standing on Richards, yanking out one old yarn after another, each meant to delay not death, exactly, but abandonment, perhaps, a loneliness to which the writer stand-in on Richards Street is prey.

That stand-in comes in many guises, frequently that of George Bowering, or maybe the fella had another name, George Delsing, but what's certain is that in these 15 stories, which Bowering has been publishing here and there for twice that many years, he used to teach at a university but he's given it up for his health.

"I quit because I was finding it difficult to locate anyone who wanted to know anything about literature," the narrator in the title story complains, arguing that he's more honestly employed among the hookers on Richards (aka Parliament Hill?): "I tried to look intellectually seductive, which consisted mainly of fiddling with my old brier and looking over the top of my glasses."

The cheekiness of the image--old man Bowering lowering himself creakily into a date's car for a discussion of the late Victorians--is typical of our poet laureate, as is the blend of real and surreal; he's made a lifelong pursuit of this fiction/nonfiction funny business, mixing up myth and story and history, undercutting the stability of writing itself by pulling focus midway to ask what the hell we're all up to: "There is a baffling lack of literary principle here," the author moans off-page during an otherwise realist story called "Joining the Lost Generation". "Should I leave such interpositions out at this late date? Someone is going to get angry no matter what I do. Imagine--getting angry at the way a person tells a story."

In the introduction, he assesses himself: "In my most recent stories there's a kind of confident relating of little incidences of strangers meeting or making slight human connections." It's true. And even if it weren't, it sounds so good it might as well be.