High on Fidelity

Critics praised Canadian poet Michael Redhill’s debut novel, Martin Sloane (2002), as “elegant,” “thoughtful,” “lyrical” — plaudits that, while justified, suggest an aesthetic more attuned to the intellect than to the gut. A long look back at the loves and career of a “found object” artist, the book brilliantly dissected memory’s vagaries and the mystery of vanished passions, but was less persuasive addressing the down-and-dirty riddles of everyday living.

Fidelity rectifies that imbalance, in spades. The author’s clinical attention to detail and poet’s faith in the exact are still there; but in these stories they drive a grittier approach to relationships, both sexual and platonic, than anything achieved in Martin Sloane. Fidelity is not a better book than its predecessor; but it exhibits a deeper sensibility, one that illuminates life’s darker corners without reveling in its ugliness.

If there’s one thematic thread joining the topically disparate and uniformly unsettling tales in Fidelity, it’s betrayal: betrayal of a lover, of a child, of a friendship, of one’s own hopes. In what could serve as the book’s representative piece, “Cold,” two middle-aged men, Paul and Louis, meander through Europe, their conversations reminiscent of the toxic gibes of bickering spouses, their only real connection the pseudo-friendship they shared while college roommates years before. When the violence and resentment lurking beneath the two men’s awkward façade finally surface, the only thing more shocking than the eruption’s suddenness is its impotence. The two men have nothing in common, but each has held on to an image of something shared, something that connects them, for so long that, when they lose it, neither of them can begin to say what it is that they’ve lost, or why it matters that it’s gone.

Other tales — “Long Division,” in which an 8-year-old math prodigy struggles beneath the shifting weight of his parents’ love, or the devastating “The Victim, Who Cannot Be Named,” about a father adrift in a world where teenagers, like his daughter, videotape their sexual exploits — abound with writing that’s somehow both taut and flowing, characters that actually act and sound like flesh-and-blood humans, and even, occasionally, a sneaky, bleak humor.

FIDELITY: STORIES | By MICHAEL REDHILL Little Brown & Company | 224 pages | $23 hardcover

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