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JOAN SULLIVAN: Megan Gail Coles delivers dense, dark, propulsive debut novel

“Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club,” By Megan Gail Coles. House of Anansi. $22.95. 426 pages
“Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club,” By Megan Gail Coles. House of Anansi. $22.95. 426 pages - Contributed

It may still be winter, but this might well be the most anticipated book of the year. Megan Gail Coles’ first publication, the short story collection “Eating Habits of the Chronically Lonely,” won the Winterset Award, a thumbs-up judgement echoed by N.L.’s literary community – Coles is a writer’s writer.

“Small Game Hunting” is her debut novel.

Winter is also the novel’s setting; more specifically, it’s Valentine’s Day, 24-hours of romantic ritual amidst clashing expectations and a blizzard, in a contemporary, gritty, unforgiving St. John’s.

The oil boom has crested and ebbed, leaving as flotsam and jetsam an avaricious drug market, sex workers, and some still-standing high-end dining spots.

The story revolves around The Hazel, a celebrated restaurant (named for the owner’s grandmother). The text is divided into the rhythm of restaurant organization: “Prep,” “Lunch,” “Dinner.”

The several central characters – this is a novel with multiple points of view – either work there, end up dining there, or are involved with those who do.

Olive Noseworthy “waits below the sad mural painted in memory of some long ago drowned boy.” She watches the movement along Duckworth Street, most of it eddying past her. She’s cold. But she knows when Iris comes to her hostessing shift at The Hazel, Olive will be able to step in, warm up.

Iris is 29, “and that is old enough to know better.” But perceiving that, and living by it, are two different things. She’s an artist, a painter, but she’s hit s a trough of self-doubt, and isn’t pushing forward. Perhaps unrelated, she’s also having an affair with her boss, John Fisher, the talented and very married chef/owner. He’s made it clear he will not leave his wife, George, nicknamed Queen Georgina and other, less polite, things. But he can’t keep away from Iris either.

 They were together the night before, passion immediately followed by drunken pleas, threats, and recriminations. Or so Iris, who woke fully clothed and still clutching her phone, somewhat remembers. She’s careening towards the restaurant now, fueled by no breakfast and last night’s booze. “A well-directed hangover, when gainfully rehearsed, will put the fear of god into those who have undone you.”

The Hazel’s server, Damien, is also coming to a rude awakening. He appears to be, of all places, in The Goulds. He knows he was doing drugs, a lot of them, and is assessing exactly what kind. “He touched his face, ran his open hands along his cheeks, down the back of his hair, along his skull, his neck, rested them for a second criss-crossed atop his collarbone, rubbing the thin nubs before examining his hands. Nothing … He had showered before work on Saturday. He looked down now, recognizing himself. His still-black shirt read The Hazel. He had gone out after work.”

Calv (his links to the others are peeled open memory-by-memory through the cascading prose) is also trying to juggle the stresses in life, being pulled in different directions by: his girlfriend, Donna; his twin sister, Amanda; and his lifelong  – friend isn’t quite the word, something between buddy and devil is more like it – Roger. All of whom have strong opinions on what Calv should be doing with his currently unemployed life. Amanda and Donna are polar opposites about this – except on the issue of Roger, where they present a united front. “Roger thinks drinking without getting drunk is a waste of money. And Calv got to agree with him, though he’s not sure he should get drunk today. Donna said not to bother coming back if he gets on the beer with Roger again.”

All of them, and others, are connected by trajectories of home town, blood line, marriage vows, and star-crossed destinies. And they are all being pulled towards zero hour at The Hazel, at a pitch of emotional and meteorological turmoil. The action is compacted into one day, but carries and conveys incredible personal backstory and narrative texture. With everyone given chance to speak from first-person, about themselves and others, characters are seen from 360 degrees, new information pumped in page by page. So even the roughest and most heedless of the persona can be viewed from an angle of vulnerability, and the most abused from a place of redemption and strength.

Cole’s writing is agile, precise, muscular, vernacular. She invests in voice and perspective and the payoff inscribes the page. It’s poetry of a frank, rough kind: some of it is hard to read. “This might hurt a little,” is Coles’ opening note. And it does.

This is a dense, dark, propulsive work.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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