Story collection is quirky, engaging

Joan Sullivan
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This collection includes 25 short stories interlinked by character and geography.
People central to one story sidle into another, sometimes hovering in the background, perhaps even just mentioned or remembered by someone else.

How Loveta Got her Baby
by Nicholas Ruddock
Breakwater Books
212 pages/$19.95

All their timelines loop and enfold, as all the relationships knit and complicate and advance.

The settings move from St. John’s along the Southern Shore and off to the mainland, the saltbox houses and Long’s Hill convenience stores and Halifax condos populated by Keepings and Grandys and Savourys.

Consistently, Nicholas Ruddock’s wry observations of human behaviour and his tone of non-pushy, spot-on humour make for good, fun reading:

So now, when suddenly he had the funds, Aaron walked into the fog. A chill set in and he turned up his collar, pulled out his gloves, put them on, slapped his palms together in one of those surges of happiness and stepped into the night. It was not until he’d gone twenty steps that he tapped his coat pocket, tapped it to feel the great reassuring chunk of money that was his. It was gone. The road-bed slanted hard into the ditch, the grass was thick, matted, invisible. For hours then, he crawled every inch of the path he’d taken, on his hands and knees, and he rolled gravel under his fingertips, raked through freezing puddles until pain and numbness were his constant companions and he cursed his own foolishness.

Then, as they all knew, Henry and the girls ran him over.

Why Aaron has the money, what he wants to do with it and who eventually finds it are all part of the clockwork-tight plot of this story, but they also tick over into other people and crises, even deaths. These may then, in turn, be reversed by the activities within another story, or by the expressed hope of other characters in that story.

As the title suggests, some of the stories concern babies, and the getting of, which happens in a variety of ways. There’s the usual route, of course, but babies are also salvaged from natural disasters or inherited by family mishap. However it happens, one of the many lovely notes Rudduck hits is that the babies are welcomed, and valued and treated for what they are, the natural chief interest of the adults around them:

There were only two of those stop signs before the yellow flasher downtown, and when Queenie shouted out “Stop Sign,” Henry would stop right off and say, “Oh my God thank you, Pasquena, if it hadn’t been for you we’d have gone through that stop sign.”

And Eunice would say, “Good for you, Queenie.”

Most of the characters mean well towards each other; try, even after they’ve perished, to do the best they can for their friends. Sins are often forgiven. And while the dramas are not huge, developing on a relatable scale, there is still something magic about what ensues and transpires. A plot to steal and traffic fossils crests into terrible waves and true love.

A defective eye turns out to project its own special artist’s vision. Letters from a yearning lover are intercepted and submerged by malice, only to resurface in their own true-love-will-out kind of way.

None of the stories are very long, not even 20 pages, and there are regular placements of pieces that are only one page, or even one sentence long.

These explore Ruddock’s world in a different way, one sinuously poetic:

…Thomas Keeping declared that Cyril Savoury was Goodwill Ambassador for the Giant Squid Club, and every Friday and Saturday night throughout the spring the two lone members would pitch their canvas tent down by the barasway, under the shadow of the rockface Iron Skull, and build a small fire, and wait for the blowing of the whales and the slap of their bodies as they rose, exhausted, nearly drowned, and Cyril and Thomas could see, even at midnight, the scar left by tentacles suction-cupped into blackened flesh…

A few of the stories, like “The Housepainters,” are structured almost entirely through the dialogue of two unnamed characters, and these are less crisply realized than the others, and a little too cute with a Borges-ian narrator feint, although they, too, add to the overall construction of the world inside this volume.

Throughout these pieces are easy to read, which doesn’t mean they’re dismissively simple.

Ruddock’s writing skill keeps the reader engaged, and moving along, just as they allow the characters to emerge as fresh, quirky and ever-surprisingly human.

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist, author and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly. Her column returns May 10.

Organizations: Halifax, Giant Squid Club, The Newfoundland Quarterly

Geographic location: Southern Shore

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