Reviewed by Elizabeth Johnston
If a dream catcher could talk, it would say Angel Wing Splash Pattern. In this short story collection, Richard Van Camp's northern Canadian stories are as visceral as nightmares, yet beautifully wrought with shiny baubles glinting from their webs.
In "Mermaids", the opening story, Van Camp throws us right into the melee: Drunk and beaten, Torchy stumbles from a tavern into the company of a little native girl, waiting hours in the cold for her mother. Something about her abandonment touches him, and he finds himself telling her the story of why God killed the mermaids. This modern allegory deepens into Torchy's personal pain at losing his brother, which becomes a motif throughout the book: How, in the context of an idealized past, contemporary life rips away the precious and replaces it with lesser jewels.
In the one Edmonton story, "Sky Burial", elder Icabus eats doughnuts to sop up the blood leaking inside him. It's all he can do to keep from crying at havng no one to pass his medicine on to. When a native child, adopted by a white woman, comes to him, he thinks maybe he's found that person. Nearby, a tropical bird hangs upside-down from its perch, trying to bite its way out of a metal leghold. The pathos of the situation floats in the air like the dull echoes of people hanging around in a large, decaying mall.
There's more hanging-around in "Let's Beat the Shit Out of Herman Rosko!", in which Grant and Clarence stand across the street from Herman's house, shivering in the snow, smoking cigarettes, trying to talk themselves into beating up the town's first marriage and sex counsellor, someone they used to harass as kids. In a surprisingly adept and graceful turn, Van Camp gently unmasks male bravado; in the space of a few pages, you not only understand these guys, but like them too.
Van Camp demonstrates this particular talent at much greater length in his novel, The Lesser Blessed, for which he won the 2001 Jugendliteraturpreis, a German literary award.
In Angel Wing Splash Pattern, Richard Van Camp lures you so close to the heat of his characters, yet always with an ice-bit of pain glinting through. Enmeshed in his stories, you come face to face with faceted flashes of the universal struggle to cope with a dazzling, dismaying world.
Elizabeth Johnston teaches creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal.
© 2002 Toronto Globe and Mail.