The best stories in Russell Wangersky’s collection The Path of Most Resistance bring a world or a community to life. “Darden Place” quietly dramatizes what happens when a group of young new homeowners takes over a changing neighbourood. The story quietly sets out what their indifferent cruelty towards the older holdouts looks and feels like, and ends with the final, surprising, revenge it leads to. In “Bide Awhile” a vicious marital argument has sudden, unexpected ramifications, and the holiday resort where it takes place gradually gains a quality of tangible, absolute, disquieting menace.
Here, place is character and character is place; each is embedded in and colours the other. Wangersky’s characters reveal themselves through their impatience with or surrender to the world around them, their rebellions and their failures to act, rather than introspection. At their peak, these stories have the strengths of the author’s finest work–the deeply unsettling spareness of Walt, the visceral insight of Burning Down the House.
Wangersky has a keen sense for human aggression, and a fine eye for the line people feel they can’t cross–and what happens when they are pushed over it. His most pointed stories are about men being used by women who are more at ease with power than they are; others feature men abusing each other over women in what shouldn’t be daily ways, perhaps, but are. He also knows all about human absurdity, and has a delicate, bittersweet way of presenting it: two retirees compete over who will clear a neighbour’s lawn of snow; a man gets obsessed with a spot of bathroom mould shaped like Armenia, that somehow comes to represent his relationship with his girlfriend; we follow a radio announcer, doomed to the graveyard shift, wandering around his empty newsroom until he can’t take it any more.
The collection’s effects come from slow buildup and intense observation rather than stylistic fireworks. The prose is unadorned, the kind that makes its way closer and closer towards the reader at walking pace, without ever drawing attention to itself. The stories are full of precise observations, small gifts of reality: the way damp in the air warns you of an approaching storm, a husband “sunk into his chair like a grounded ship.” It’s fine, detached, and subtle writing.
But there’s something more too, in the way Wangersky eases languidly between action and imagination. Certain brief moments of memory and fantasy, a little like Richard Ford’s thoughtful, dreaming, disconnected men, suggest a different register of interest from the mostly unspectacular events the stories are about. Structurally, there’s great artistry in the way Wangersky is able to tell, somehow, two stories at the same time, the under-plot gradually easing the main plot out of sight.
The collection’s effects come from slow buildup and intense observation rather than stylistic fireworks.
Still, the collection as a whole feels like a drawing down rather than a spreading out. In part this may relate to its taciturn quality: rage and despair is related in the characters’ actions, but it doesn’t seep into the language. That’s fine as a stylistic principle–the first few stories feel effectively, ironically, dramatically detached. But as the collection goes on, a tension grows between the force of what’s being described and the lack of modulation with which it’s being presented.
There’s a similar problem with the endings of many of the stories: often they build up to a non-moment, a missed moment or a moment about to happen. Life’s like this, of course, more characterized by meandering open-endedness than dramatic final revelation. But in a short story, the non-endings feel like an unsatisfying tailing off. Someone once said that a short story is really nothing but an ending, and if there’s no ending, there’s no story—and these endings are too often whimpers rather than bangs.
At its best, The Path of Most Resistance is haunting, careful, almost imperceptibly full of power. Wangersky’s finest stories will linger with you a long time. Too many slide thinly past, however, in a book that ultimately sounds one note and stays in one place too long.