The book jacket of Kevin Patterson's first short-fiction collection, Country of Cold, Stories of Sex and Death, claims it's about “the lives of vibrant young men and women raised in rural Canada.” But this is a bit of editorial embroidery, as Patterson's characters — a loosely knit group of high school acquaintances who skim past one another for 20 years — are too swaddled in shame and sadness to be anything close to vibrant. In attempts to hide from what they cannot change — a botched medical procedure that results in a child's death, social invisibility — they move progressively north, where they drink heavily and/or physically exert themselves while constructing reasons to stay alive.
The answers often lead to the water, and the book's most hopeful moments are when boats are being readied, carrying only what is essential. “The beauty of useful things is worth noticing,” says an old woman in “Saw Marks,” preparing to paddle away from widowhood and Hudson Bay. “Rope, for instance. Run it through your hands: light, pliable — look, you can bend it in half — gorgeous yellow polypropylene rope . . . This is a kind of love.” But Country of Cold is not all heavy weather. Patterson is adept at anguished comedy, as when the jilted husband in “Les Is More,” grown obese from drowning his heartbreak in milkshakes, stuffs himself into a steel capsule and enlists two quasi-friends to push him over a waterfall. “Lester felt ridiculous and pathetic, a fat helpless man in a barrel, like a giant fish being transported to a zoo . . .”
While the collection has missteps — there are bold omniscient ruminations, and the decision to make the stories thematic appears tacked on — Country of Cold has moments of hard beauty that come as through a blizzard: hazy, stinging as ice needles, and essential if one is to get through.
COUNTRY OF COLD, STORIES OF SEX AND DEATH | By KEVIN PATTERSON | Nan A. Talese/Doubleday | 254 pages $24 hardcover