By Carleigh Baker. Anvil, 168 pp, softcover
Vancouver’s Carleigh Baker commands attention with “War of Attrition”, the opening story (of 15) in her debut collection, Bad Endings. In it, Corrina, a woman “at the bottom of the food chain”, decides to leave her husband because, she explains, she just doesn’t feel like making the marriage work. In sudden need of a steady income, she takes a job distributing newspapers at a SkyTrain station and listens to a deluge of bitter life advice from her rival Lana, a Ukrainian mail-order bride.
Sharp, darkly comic, and intriguing as a vignette, “War of Attrition” is matched perfectly by the closer, “Moosehide”. While on a canoeing trip near the Arctic Circle, an accountant couple expect to become the envy of their urban friends. Instead, they’re bored and fatigued, and all they notice is “the same shit we’ve seen for the last week: stunted trees, exfoliated hills, mud”. The spark in their otherwise soggy romance is reignited in the story’s final pages, when they realize that they can quit early and leave the reputedly enchanting wilderness behind.
Between those tales, Baker nimbly switches tone and focus. She’s sympathetic when observing a jaded guy (newly out of detox) who works at a suicide-prevention hotline and falls off the wagon seeking cocaine so that he can get laid. To a woman freshly out of the psych ward, whose family visit makes her realize she’s “totally not ready for the real world”, she offers the gift of dignity. There’s an amusing air of satire when Baker traces the steps of a woman who feels “like a thirty-year-old divorcee” (which, technically, she is) and who fights for bargain shoes at the Holt Renfrew sale, and when the author describes a new couple (with still-active Tinder accounts) reaching the end of their affair. And, in “Read These Postcards in a Gonzo Journalist Voice”, Baker injects a welcome playfulness that also showcases literary chops.
Often working with conventional subjects like love, connection, loss, and purpose, Baker offers refreshing or off-kilter perspectives on them. Her characters possess an abundance of hard-luck stories, true, but she writes them as sometimes wrong and sometimes foolish and hence eminently human in their fallibility.