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Contrary Angel by Mike Barnes  

In stories of stark passion and haunting trauma, Contrary Angel finds an acute clarity in those moments when human desires meet the sorcery of the world. The stories are exuberantly diverse in both subject matter and technique, as evidenced by a few of their titles: ‘Urchipelago’, ‘Karaoke Mon Amour’, ‘Cogagwee’, ‘Do Not Stand Outside the Grande Restaurant.’ They take us from the brilliant career of the runner Tom Longboat to the comic machinations of a peeping Tom landlord. The final four-story sequence, ‘Doctors’, follows an Egypt-obsessed girl from a savage childhood incident through her ‘running’ years as an athlete, traveller, wife and doctor, culminating in a devastating encounter in an operating room in the middle of the night.

Stories from Contrary Angel have appeared twice in The Journey Anthology, twice in Best Canadian Stories, and won the Silver Medal at the National Magazine Awards.

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‘Caveats aside, Contrary Angel is a worthwhile purchase. Barnes’s prose is engaging and perceptive, and the book includes some of the best stories published in Canada in recent years.’

—Douglas Ivison, Canadian Book Review Annual

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‘Barnes’s fiction combines stark realism with a surrealist edge. He paints the zany underside of working life through the development of off-the-wall yet highly believable characters. His lucid prose brings to mind Poe’s Gothic horror, Hunter S. Thompson’s strangeness (without the drug-craze), William Burroughs’s ellipsis (without the disintegration). But it is perhaps closest to Roald Dahl’s intimate exploration of human oddity and use of surprise in Switch Bitch. For instance, Barnes writes, ‘‘A sharp-faced old woman peered out from behind the chain lock. Her chin jutted out beyond a toothless mouth, making her face seem to be collapsing on itself’’ (Don and Ron). ... Though rooted in the real, these stories explore how what is unexpected seeps from the depths of consciousness and makes its way into the fiction as dark-edged surrealism. It would be a mistake to pass up this provocative, imaginative book from a rising talent.’’

—Joshua Auerbach, Globe & Mail

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‘... every now and then we come across what we call a ‘‘yes’’ story, a story that we know we will publish no matter what else is in the batch, a story we don’t even need to discuss, though we often do, if only for the pleasure of trotting out its virtues and congratulating ourselves on our great good fortune that the author thought to send it to us and not some other magazine.... Mike Barnes’s ‘‘Don and Ron’’ was one such story.’

—Kim Jernigan, The New Quarterly

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‘... when we read his four-story sequence ‘‘Doctors,’’ we knew we had to feature it. Besides satisfying those of you who’ve wanted more work by one writer without its being a whole special issue, this publication should also go some way towards proving my claim: regardless of whether or not it becomes The Next Big Thing, the work of Mike Barnes is the real thing.’

—Andris Taskans, Prairie Fire

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‘Throughout both sections of Contrary Angel Mike Barnes demonstrates an in-depth understanding of the world we live in, presenting characters that prove to the reader that we all come with warts, that they’re hideous, but the blemishes will never go away. Barnes knows his characters, he knows their problems and he has no qualms in presenting them to his readers in a style that is forthright and evocative. ... As a two-for-one deal, Contrary Angel can’t miss.’

—Robert LeBlanc, Ultimate Hallucination

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‘Mike Barnes writes beautifully. His short stories are concise and beautifully constructed. The characters are real and multi-faceted. In this collection the stories are all different but engrossing and memorable.’

—Connie O’Brien, Independently Reviewed

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‘That people are fallible, confusing, and above all worthwhile, whether janitor or doctor, is a basic thread through Barnes’s stories. Contrary Angel looks at the human condition with searing honesty, tempered by compassion. Barnes’s eloquence is palpable. Short stories don’t get much better than these.’

—Candace Fertile, Malahat Review


Mike Barnes: extremes and extraordinary humanity

Chris Watson
Reprinted from View Magazine

Mike Barnes has been a man of many trades -- steelworker, dishwasher, janitor, clock salesman, fishing guide and more -- but he returns to Hamilton next Wednesday in connection with his most notorious job. Barnes is the author of three well-received books: Calm Jazz Sea, a book of poetry, The Syllabus, a novel, and Aquarium, a book of short stories that won him an award in 1999 for the best first book of stories written by a Canadian. His fourth book, a second collection of stories entitled Contrary Angel, was published last month by Porcupine’s Quill.

Contrary Angel is a lively, engaging collection, and a great place to become acquainted with Barnes’ muscular, natural prose style. By turns funny and disturbing, erotic and revolting, the eleven stories that comprise this book will undoubtedly, and at the least, provoke a reaction in the reader -- and the value of a provoked-reaction should not be over-looked. The book ends with a great four-story sequence called ‘Doctors’ -- it is really more a novella than a series of stories -- which follows a girl’s tumultuous life through to adulthood and is alone worth picking up the book to read. Another good reason to read the book (if you love all things Hamilton, which of course you do) is that Barnes grew up in and around our fair city.

Although he was born in the States, Barnes’ parents are both Canadian; they moved back to the Hamilton area when Barnes was two, and he grew up in various places around the region (Hamilton, Ancaster, Waterdown), eventually studying at McMaster. While he lives in Toronto now, he hasn’t forgotten The Hammer: in fact, it shows up quite prominently in Contrary Angels, particularly in its opening story ‘Don and Ron.’

But apart from providing interesting settings, has Hamilton shaped Barnes’ writing? ‘That’s hard to say,’ he muses. ‘I know it has, I’ve talked to another writer from Hamilton about that, but we’ve had a hard time putting our finger on it... I think every place you live does shape your writing. When I think of Hamilton and my writing, I think of the extremes that were very evident to me living in the city... I think the extremes of the city gave me a taste for that, for the extremes.’

And indeed, there are some extremes found in the stories of Contrary Angel: there is suicide and love-making, people pee on restaurant floors and crap their own pants. But the extremes are always balanced by the extraordinary humanity of Barnes’ characters; the characters you encounter in the pages of his book are real people, with real lives, loves, ambitions and jobs. Perhaps this is why Barnes also has an affinity for Hamilton as a working city. ‘I guess you could say that about any city,’ he ponders, ‘I mean, Toronto is [a working city] too, but there was always more of a feel of people working [in Hamilton], that work mattered, that it was a big part of life. That shows up in my writing... I like writing where people have jobs and you can see inside their jobs... It might not focus on their jobs, but they’re living in this world and working.’

Work apparently carries meaning with Barnes -- remember all those jobs? -- as both an author and a person. Currently, he works as an English tutor. So what’s more demanding: teaching English, or writing it? ‘I find them both really demanding,’ Barnes says. ‘With one-on-one tutoring, the challenge is to try and find what that particular student needs, which is often difficult to figure out, and often difficult to provide. But I enjoy that, it takes me out of myself. It’s someone else’s world, their difficulties -- I think I’d go a little nuts if I was just a full-time writer, stuck in my own head all the time.’

Barnes’ stories provide ample evidence of his ability to put himself into someone else’s world. The story ‘Cogagwee’ -- about Tom Longboat, the local Onondaga Indian who made a name for himself as a runner early in the last century -- is a stand-out in Contrary Angel. (Barnes says he may read the story when he comes to town next week, since Longboat is a local hero and some of the story takes place in and around Hamilton.) While writing a story from the point-of-view of a real, once-living person seems like it might be a daunting task, it wasn’t for Barnes.

‘Actually, I found that to be one of the most natural stories for me to write in the book,’ he says. ‘It may be because I’m really not trying to capture his voice, I have no idea what his voice would really be. I think that’s why I put in the subtitle, ‘Walks around the Life of Tom Longboat,’ because I almost felt like I was speaking from behind him, or from the side of him... From some place near him, but not actually his life. Once I found the kind of rhythm of the voice, it seemed to flow out very easily. I had a lot of fun writing that story. It felt very peaceful writing it.

‘That’s one of the parts of the writing process I enjoy most,’ Barnes adds, in reference to the difficultly (or lack thereof) of writing characters with lives so different from his own. ‘I know a lot of people are autobiographical writers, but I feel I’m expressing more of myself when I write a character who stands far apart from me... If I can imagine someone who’s really different than me, I’m tapping aspects of myself that I didn’t even know were there.’

Despite the appearance, throughout the stories in Contrary Angel, of Canadian people and places Barnes’ work is decidedly not, to borrow an ugly academic phrase, Can-Lit. ‘I guess the fact that nothing’s leaping to mind probably means no,’ Barnes says when asked if he can identify anything specifically Canadian about his work. ‘I read all kinds of different authors and different genres from all over the world, and I can see pieces of them in my writing or pieces of my writing in what they’re doing, but I guess the answer would have to be no.’

Since Barnes’ writing can’t really be pigeonholed as ‘Canadian,’ how are we to define his stories, his characters and narratives? ‘There might be a clue in the title actually,’ he reveals. ‘The title phrase comes from the first story. It’s used to describe a character, but it might be used to capture something... The character may have a spiritual side, they have beliefs, or more often they’re looking for beliefs, but they’re not these ethereal creatures of light and goodness. They live very much in this world. They’re real, sold, flawed, often stubborn. But yet they’re capable of being magnificent at times in spite of these limitations...’

Success in spite of limitations also applies to Barnes’ ability within what could be seen as the confines of the short story format. ‘It’s a lot less forgiving than the novel form,’ he relates. ‘I read lots of novels, and when you read a novel it might be 300 pages long, and if you find even a 50-page section, which is quite a number of pages, but if you find a 50-page section boring, or it has a slow start, you’ll forgive it that as long as it gets you there in the end. But a short story, and this is even more true of a poem, you really don’t have that leeway. The reader isn’t going to give you that much time, so it’s all got to be there very quickly. I think that’s why, for me, writing short stories is pretty much an all-or-nothing proposition.’

Fortunately for his readers, Barnes’ work is decidedly a more all than nothing affair. You’ll have a chance to judge that for yourself, however: Mike Barnes will read from his work on Wednesday, June 9, at the Gallery on the Bay (231 Bay N.). Natalee Caple and David Bezmozgis will also appear.

—Chris Watson, View Magazine


Mike Barnes is the author of the novels Catalogue Raisonné and The Syllabus, the short fiction collections Aquarium -- winner of the 1999 Danuta Gleed Award -- and Contrary Angel, and two poetry collections, Calm Jazz Sea, shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial award, and a thaw foretold. His stories have appeared twice in Best Canadian Stories, three times in The Journey Prize Anthology, and won the Silver Medal for Fiction at the National Magazine Awards. He was the subject of a feature issue of The New Quarterly (Summer 2001) which included an interview and three new stories. In 2008 he released his first non-fiction title, The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. Formerly a piano teacher, fishing guide, janitor, steelworker, dishwasher, clock salesman, security guard, English teacher, in recent years he has been working as a private tutor. He lives in Toronto.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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FICTION / Short Stories

FICTION / Literary

ISBN-13: 9780889842397

Publication Date: 2004-05-15

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 208

Price: $18.95