In Stoop City, novelist and short story writer, Kristyn Dunnion, has accomplished every writer’s goal, delivering thirteen fully realized stories that feel for all the world like real life. Set mainly in Toronto, they feature a remarkable range of styles, voices and characters. We meet college students, activists, upscale strivers, homeless kids, junkies, prostitutes and the neurodivergent. We enter flophouses and tony apartments, homeless shelters and mansions. From Yorkville to Rosedale ravine encampments, these stories map their characters’ dissolution and tenacious hope.
When collecting stories, one is frequently counseled to put the strongest first, the second strongest bringing up the rear. Dunnion follows that model here. “Now is the Time to Light Fires,” the collection’s opening story, is a stunner—an achingly beautiful evocation of grief. A grad student shares an apartment with her dead lover’s ghost, who, when not lovingly cuddlesome, flaunts proofs of her past infidelities. Hurt feelings and bickering ensue, necessitating the services of a psychobabble-spouting couples counselor. A drunken wake at a gay bar. Much mining of sadness for the wryly humourous in bold, inventive language: “my feet slide on black ice hidden by the heron-coloured silt. Winter is comma-quiet…” (6).
Bookending this, is the equally fine concluding story, “Last Call at the Dogwater Inn.” Ray and his fellow “miscreants” (203) of a skid row hotel hold an impromptu wake for Jimmy, who in the previous story was killed by the cops. Ray is reeling from “all my bantling failures” (208), including a recent breakup “that zapped my last tender spots…” (200). His sole consolation is his friendship with the neurodivergent Jimmy, whose companion is an enormous wolf spider named Biggie Smalls.
Dunnion vividly draws the wake’s participants. A woman who nods so vigorously the ripped-to-the-tits Ray “can hear the flubbery shake of her goiterous neckskin.” (207). A coke-addled denizen, whose finger-tapping reminds Ray of his “mother worrying her rosary, God in her skirt.” (203). But it isn’t the flophouse’s human occupants who have the last word, but Biggie Smalls and her brood in a conclusion that is elegiac and piercingly beautiful.
Between these two stunners are many fine stories. In “How We Learn to Lie” a real estate agent, a perfectionist, navigates an imperfect life punctuated by troublesome clients and an accidental boyfriend. The sure-footedness of Dunnion’s prose illuminates the story’s particulars. Staging her client’s properties, the realtor removes their belongings bit by bit “…until a purity in openness emerges, a balancing of light and air and material objects set in space; the lie of neutrality. This is the soothing of wounds, when complete; the calming of sorrows. Progress and satisfaction, here on earth.” (31).
I’ve heard it said that all stories are redemption stories. If you count transformation as a kind of redemption, that’s certainly true of the stories here. Take “Oort Cloud Gets a Makeover.” When Jan begins her freshman year at a Toronto university, her worldview is as small as the tiny Ontario town she comes from. Enter the wild child, Saffy, fellow student, environmental activist, would-be arsonist prone to wearing outlandish outfits culled from thrift stores and kitchen cabinets. It’s a testament to Dunnion’s penetrating gaze that Saffy isn’t caricature, but catalyst—her acolyte Jan finally bursting her chrysalis to become alive to the possibilities of her own body.
“Fits Ritual” is one of several bravura pieces featuring a strong use of voice. Here, we’re right up inside Hoofy’s poor drug-addled head. The gay street kid is sidekick and sometime lover to stud-muffin Roam, whose faked sidewalk seizures distract Yorkville shoppers long enough for Hoofy to snag their loot. You really feel for the hopelessly enthralled Hoofy, pining away for the beautiful bisexual conman, making do with his sketchy professions of love. For neither Roam or the Yorkville shoppers ever really notice the androgynous kid. “I’m a ghost—people pass through my life like I’m not even here.” (36).
In “Daughter of Cups,” fourteen-year-old Ohio negotiates various humiliations in her tiny dead-end town on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. Water motifs abound, beginning with the title taken from a tarot card depicting a white swan whose watery reflection is a rainbow. And lurking somewhere “in that murk a clam-crowned princess is living a life meant for Ohio, magic and free. Hair tangled and billowing with tide, skin pale and tantalizing as a trout belly…” (111). The evocative, surreal ending threatens violence, retribution.
“Adoro Te Devote” is a long, immersive story of Pauly, a gay mama’s boy from a devout Catholic family. Bullied at school, he retreats to the church, fantasizing about becoming a priest. Taking the cue from the title, a Eucharistic hymn of adoration by Thomas Aquinas, Pauly worships the town ruffian Greggor, who alternately bullies and has sex with him. The story captures the terror of gay-bashing, of having to conceal every aspect of yourself, of being in love and lust for the first time. As with most of these tales, tragedy is averted—a triumph, of sorts, in its rapturous ending.
Like the opening story, “Tracker and Flow” is a portrait of unresolved grief. Having struggled to conceive, a woman implodes after her “…hard-won pregnancy is disrupted with news of an incompetent cervix.” (169). Incapable of reaching her, the hapless husband is tracking a downward spiral of his own. Her grief festering, the woman adopts a young male alley cat, a surrogate child. As the cat grows in power and authority, the story painfully traces its destruction of the couple—their once not unhappy life, their upscale apartment. Abandoned by the cat at the story’s end, the battered and beaten pair grope toward a tentative resolution.
Dunnion, having written one other story collection and a handful of novels, is a seasoned prose stylist. The language here is frequently poetic and boldly inventive. In addition, she is a queer punk performance artist, has played bass in Toronto rock bands, and has worked with homeless adults with mental illness and at-risk queer kids. Clearly, these experiences contribute to the exuberance and depth of this collection, one that confirms Dunnion as a writer firmly in control of her craft.
by Kristyn Dunnion
Biblioasis, 2020, 221 p.p., $22.95
Lucian Childs is a Canadian-American writer living in Toronto, Ontario. His debut work, “Dreaming Home,” is set to be published by Biblioasis Spring 2023. He is a co-editor of Lambda Literary finalist, Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the literary journals Grain, The Puritan, and Prairie Fire, among others. Find more at Twitter @lucianchilds and on the web at www.lucianchilds.com.