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Urban Disturbances by Bruce McDougall  

Bruce McDougall’s skilful short stories sketch a warts-and-all portrait of humanity, illuminating the mysterious forces that drive people to behave in unique—and uniquely human—ways.

In Urban Disturbances ordinary characters reveal through their stories the infinite possibilities of our common humanity.

A dispassionate lawyer experiences mixed feelings about talking a man out of jumping off a bridge. A respected philanthropist begins to buckle under the weight of a shocking secret. A determined woman crafts a meticulous plan to bag a rich husband. Jack (of beanstalk fame) discovers the maiden in the tower—and happily ever after—aren’t always all that they’re cracked up to be. These characters and others are at once painfully ordinary and deliciously absurd, often relatable and occasionally irredeemable. They navigate complicated relationships and contend with their own self-destructive behaviours, all the while clinging to essential, very human, desires: to be noticed, to be wanted, to be loved, and occasionally, when the situation calls for it, to get what they deserve.


2022—Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards,


2022—ReLit Awards, Short Fiction,

Review text

Inventive scenarios make the short stories collected in Urban Disturbances disturbing, disarming, and worthwhile.

Bruce McDougall probes the undersides of city and suburban life in his short story collection Urban Disturbances.

These stories showcase people dealing with difficulties both self-inflicted and imposed. In "A Walk with God," Ali, a sympathetic immigrant has a chihuahua named God. Ali’s efforts to find solid financial and personal footing in Toronto are grounded in issues around low-wage work and racial discrimination, described in a way that embraces humorous wordplay and elements of the absurd. When God goes missing, and Ali’s girlfriend Penny advises him to get another dog, he tells her "There’s only one God," and she responds, "That’s what my uncle says." The epigram that precedes the tale informs and sets the tone for the story, but only reveals its complete meaning once Ali’s final fate has been revealed.

This balance of dark and light, a literary chiaroscuro, inhabits the entire book, which sometimes edges closer to the seedy and salacious, as with tales of a pedophile haunted by his actions, or a drug dealer on probation. Justice arrives in ways that are explicit and implied; on occasion, it comes via twists.

In the book’s sixteen stories, memorable characters are less common than memorable and imaginative premises, plots, and resolutions, though. This is perhaps best exemplified in "The Price Is Right," in which a father is put up for auction on a game show. The story wastes no time delving into issues of emotional needs and parental responsibilities with charming bleak humor. But its lead, Jack, blends with the Jack of "One for the Money," a journalist who is struck by harsh observations about the power of the dollar. Others also have interchangeable names: Carl Vigneault, the once hockey hopeful in "All in the Game," seems to be a different character than the Carl of the following story, "Carl Comes Home for the Holidays." People’s common natures are highlighted in this way, though the characters of the book’s shorter tales are also elusive because of their underdevelopment; many fill roles as servants of the plots.

Strong, declarative sentences are stacked throughout, instilling a sense of routine: "At lunchtime I went downstairs. A concourse runs under all the big buildings. It was crowded." This writing method suits the stories well, helping to emphasize the exceptional emerging from the everyday. And near the end of the book, the stories take an additional comic turn with a twisted modern mashup of the fairy tales "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Rapunzel," and a funny but realistic account of a young woman’s quest to wed a wealthy man in Palm Beach. The loose feel and mocking tone of these and other stories end the book on a light, entertaining note.

Inventive scenarios make the short stories collected in Urban Disturbances disturbing, disarming, and worthwhile.

—Peter Dabbene, Foreword Reviews

Review quote

‘McDougall’s precise, staccato prose is perfectly suited to these tales of discord and struggle. Again and again, he generates suspense with a series of simple declarative sentences, at the same time conjuring vivid environments where his characters enact their private tragedies and test each other’s mettle.’

—Ian Colford, The Miramichi Reader

Excerpt from book

From ‘Birding with Dad’

The last time Paul went for a walk with his father, they’d descended from their fifth-floor apartment and trudged into the hydro field behind the building, pushing through the long grass until their pant legs were damp and covered in seeds. Before they reached the other side of the field, his father twisted his ankle in a gopher hole and had to lean on his son as they made their way home again. Paul had felt proud to feel his father’s weight on his shoulder, but his father had been grumpy for the next week.

Paul liked it when his dad included him in his walks. It made him feel hopeful and mature, as if his father regarded him as a trusted partner rather than a nuisance or an agent of his mother. This evening, he let Paul run ahead of him along the path that led from their apartment building through the hydro field. The sun was starting to set. A man with a dog angled through the long grass ahead of them toward a barrier between the field and a dead-end road. The man loaded his dog into the back seat of a black car and drove away. Paul plunged ahead of his father into the thick grass, then returned to the path and waited for him to catch up. The damp grass soaked his canvas running shoes. Small green seeds stuck to his arms.

Black cables hung between the outstretched metal arms of the hydro towers like skipping ropes in a game played by skeletal giants. Standing near the base of one of the towers, Paul and his father gazed upward into the maze of metal beams and porcelain insulators until they spotted a birds’ nest wedged into a corner. Paul’s father took a slingshot from his pocket. He picked up a rock and fired it at the nest. He tried three times, but each time he missed the nest. He handed the slingshot to his son. ‘You try,’ he said.

Paul kicked at the dirt around his feet until he found a smooth pebble. He looked up at the nest, placed the pebble in the leather pouch of the slingshot, pulled back on the rubber bands and fired. The pebble struck the bottom of the nest. The nest dangled above the ground like a spectator’s dislodged hat. Paul could see a cluster of chicks clinging to the ragged edges of the nest. They squeaked like rusty hinges as they blindly opened their beaks, waiting for food. ‘Try again,’ his father said. When Paul hit the nest a second time, one of the chicks spilled to the ground. Paul’s father walked over to the stunned bundle of feathers. He looked down, raised his boot and stepped on the bird. ‘Sometimes I’d like to do this to your mother,’ he said, and then he made a guttural sound intended as laughter.

In the pause between his father’s words and his chuckle, Paul caught a glimpse of his father’s anger. It was no joke.

When they walked home, Paul’s father said, ‘Tell your mother that you want to sleep tonight in your own bed.’ They walked farther. ‘A boy your age shouldn’t be sleeping with his mother,’ his father said. When they got home, Paul’s father lay down on the couch and turned on the TV. Paul walked down the hall to his mother’s bedroom, knocked and waited for his mother to give him permission to enter.

His mother was leaning against a satin pillow propped against the headboard, blowing on her nails. There was a bottle of nail polish on the table beside the bed. She was wearing a pink slip that left the tops of her breasts exposed. Paul said, ‘I should sleep in my own bed.’

‘Who told you that?’ his mother said.


His mother sighed. ‘How many times do I have to tell you?’ she said.

Paul had heard the same story from his mother many times. It all began, she told him again, with her wish to protect him from harm. ‘The world can be a dangerous place,’ she said.

Unpublished endorsement

‘These stories, about small people coping in and beyond an irascible city, take shape like songs. As the melodies float up and hang in the rafters, their truths linger.’

—Don Rooke, musician and founder of The Henrys

Unpublished endorsement

‘Like gonzo lit meets Canadian civics.’

—Jonathan Kay, former editor of The Walrus

Unpublished endorsement

‘In his engrossing, cut-diamond collection of 18 finely observed short stories, Bruce McDougall captures with a tough-minded empathy the existential plights of the anonymous low and vainglorious high, the innocent and venal, the fragile and incorrigible, the petty and profound.

‘Moving from realism to fable, from the luckless working stiff to self-deluding philanthropist, his characters randomly intersect and collide, only to fall back into their class bubbles, each and all "wearing their destinies like a layer of dust."

His lacerating satirical jabs are worthy of Jonathan Swift. Sudden, sharp turns of phrase catch you like a left hook, and we are left experiencing the ordinary surfaces of life as extraordinary—no ordinary achievement.’

—James FitzGerald, author of What Disturbs Our Blood: A Son’s Quest to Redeem the Past, winner of the 2010 Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize


Credit: Ian Crysler

Bruce McDougall has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. A graduate of Harvard College, he served as an editor of The Harvard Lampoon and attended the University of Toronto Law School before becoming a full-time writer. He has written or co-written more than twenty non-fiction books, including The Last Hockey Game (Goose Lane, 2014) and biographies of Canadian poet Charles Mair; Canada’s first detective, John Wilson Murray; and business giant Ted Rogers. He has also published a collection of short stories, Every Minute Is a Suicide (Porcupine’s Quill, 2014). His essays have appeared in The Antigonish Review and his fiction in Geist, subTerrain and Scrivener. 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: 9780889844384

Publication Date: 2021-02-26

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 208

Price: $19.95