(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Guy Vanderhaeghe is a Canadian prairie writer, the prairie provinces being those of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Prairie writing tends to be largely realistic, though not without symbolic and experimental overtones. Vanderhaeghe’s social realism is given heft by both a sense of place and a sense of style. He is particularly known for his portrayal of male characters living in contemporary times.

Vanderhaeghe’s stories have some similarities to those of American writers a decade or so senior to him, such as Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. Like Ford and Carver, Vanderhaeghe often focuses on alienated male protagonists who are bewildered by the contemporary universe in which the time-honored rules of masculinity seem no longer operative. He differs from them, though, in that his perspective is more comic, less gritty than theirs. Vanderhaeghe’s stories are more philosophical than the norm, even if the philosophy is more practical than theoretical. For instance, in the story “Sam, Soren, and Ed,” Vanderhaeghe uses the thought of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to illuminate issues in his protagonist’s development, though this reference is in the spirit of fun as much as erudition. Also, Vanderhaeghe does not affect the artlessness possessed at times by American writers; his stories are finely crafted, and, despite their often contemporary Canadian setting, are in the twentieth century tradition of the short story as art form. Vanderhaeghe’s gently humorous tone and his agility at making wry comments and observing odd details assist him in putting his own stamp upon the form.

Man Descending

Man Descending concerns a married couple, Ed and Victoria. Ed is monopolizing the bathroom, smoking and drinking, and generally trying to maintain traditional male modes of excess. Victoria is distressed by this and is generally upset about the state of her marriage, especially because Ed is unemployed. Ed feels his wife’s love for him has been diminished by what should be the external factor of his present joblessness, and he strongly suspects she is having an affair with Howard, a pompous professional man.

Using the example of a child prodigy, whose life ended at four and a half basically because he had no more worlds to conquer, Ed hypothesizes that everyone’s life follows the same curve, after a certain point descending from its peak. Ed feels that, though only thirty, he is losing out to less manly, more negotiable men, such as Howard. Ed is not a blue-collar worker; indeed, he is intellectual enough to use words like “innuendo” and to work in an adult-education program, but he is skeptical of the bureaucratic jargon bandied about in his workplace, and this seems to represent a general dissent from the overly formalized living conditions of postmodern humanity.

Ed and Victoria go to a party, where Ed sees that Victoria and Howard are obviously flirtatious. He gets involved in a physical fight with Howard, in which Howard bests him. Howard is about to beat Ed to a pulp when Victoria suddenly intervenes on Ed’s behalf. Moved by Victoria’s gesture, Ed pledges to reform himself, to get a job, and to treat his wife better. Victoria, though, seems skeptical of these promises, and, it is implied, the reader should be as well.

Vanderhaeghe skillfully balances the reader’s sympathies between husband and wife. Ed is shown to be self-pitying; he acts as if Howard, though ‘superior’ to him in being employed, is...

(The entire section is 1440 words.)