Fiction Review by Aaron Shepard

Adrian Michael Kelly, The Ambassador of What: Stories (Toronto: ecw, 2018). Paperbound, 184 pp., $19.95.

The Ambassador of WhatMasculinity, as a literary subject, often comes pre-packaged with images and a particular writing style—gritty, usually unrelentingly bleak—that demand a certain level of adherence. Writing about modern maleness can mean digging upwards from the bottom of a deep hole of booze, bad coffee, bloodied knuckles, mucus, and other bodily fluids. The real satisfaction lies in watching how writers rise above the stereotypes and the constraints to arrive at something fresh and revelatory, and the degree to which they succeed.

On the surface, The Ambassador of What, Adrian Michael Kelly’s first short-story collection (he has a novel, Down Sterling Road), tours us through the familiar terrain of wounded masculinity and blue-collar despair. Underneath, however, quiet emotions and character revelations steer us into new territory. The book is divided into two parts. The stories in the first section are linked and somewhat chronological, following an unnamed narrator from his childhood in small-town Ontario into his mid-to-late twenties. While not in every story, his father—an ambulance driver and house painter, and a divorced, somewhat functional alcoholic—looms as a central figure: the casually abusive dad capable of surprising insight and acts of kindness. He runs a marathon with his kid, gives a driving lesson while doling out punches to his son’s leg, and nearly drinks himself to death when his own mother dies.

Alone amongst his family—including an older sister in Calgary and a mother who left when he was child—the narrator has academic aspirations, pursuing an English literature degree. Names like Keats, Eliot, and Pound are invoked like spells to ward off his past (or a future of failure). On a passenger train in “Petty Theft,” he reads F.R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition, attempting to ignore his situation, but he can’t forget his ill-fitting suit nor his shameful court appearance for shoplifting acne cream. The upper-middle-class woman sitting nearby invokes both desire and bitter self-consciousness; each character he encounters is an indictment of his lower-class roots. In “Dogshit Blues,” a reference to Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is paired with a scene of the narrator’s father waking naked from a near-fatal alcoholic stupor, bringing to mind the lines, “There died a myriad / And of the best, among them, / For an old bitch gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilisation.”

Against these dour settings of trains, trucks, and ramshackle neighbourhoods, amongst itinerants, drunks, and losers, the power and purpose of literature are thrown into question. By intimately cataloguing every grimy detail of small-town life, the narrator betrays a rueful loyalty toward the world he’s trying to leave behind. University, on the other hand, is reported to us vaguely, steeped in doubt. If Kelly had shown us both worlds in equally visceral terms, his stories might have been more complex, more tension-filled. But the narrator’s conflicted self feels tangible enough, while the overall tone, though elegiac, resists easy sentiment or nostalgia.

Indeed, Kelly’s writing focuses nearly exclusively on the earthy, low side of existence, eschewing beauty. Even his similes tend toward the grotesque: “Trees lean over the islands’ edges like drunks just waiting to sick on themselves.” If there’s beauty to be found, it’s in Kelly’s dialogue, which is snappy, rhythmic, and rings true. Despite the often simple story structure—a downward trajectory where things start off bad and then get worse—Kelly leaves room for surprise and catharsis. In “Private Function,” the narrator’s mother turns out to be more complicated and interesting than most female characters found in testosterone-soaked literature. “MacInney’s Strong,” one of the collection’s best and most moving stories, subverts our expectations of the father and arrives at a point of epiphany that lends emotional depth to the earlier stories.

If the first section works together more or less chronologically to close on a satisfying note, section two opens up the book again with unconnected stories offering variations on the same themes. Instead of the same first-person narrator, we see a boy on a fishing trip with his father (in the excellent “Lure”), then a boy boxing against the son of a violent ex-con in “The Door Opener.” Are we seeing the same boy from a different angle? It’s unimportant—what counts is the mood Kelly creates. The final two stories are vignettes of existential crises, like atmospheric garnish. While the writing remains equally sharp and arresting, the second section suffers somewhat in comparison to the first, where the cumulative effect was greater than the sum of its parts. Standing on its own, “The Door Opener” mostly repackages earlier takes on toxic masculinity. “Mid-Flight” and “Animal Cruelty” offer new voices and flavours, but lack the same degree of satisfaction as “MacInney’s Strong.” From a structural standpoint, however, the second section is pleasingly impressionistic, building off the solid base of the book’s first stories.

One back-cover blurb describes Kelly’s book as “rural noir,” which, to me, sounds like an invitation to gawk at characters and settings that fall outside the urban mainstream. While at times Kelly’s writing plays into trailer-trash stereotypes, his understated, sensitive prose avoids exploitative, cynical, or showy extremes. Instead, he creates a dignified and relatable snapshot of men caught up in their very human striving.


—Aaron Shepard

As in The Malahat Review, 206, Spring 2019