Lost Boys

#871 Memory’s irritants, Ormsby Review, July 22, 2020

Lost Boys

Reviewed by William New

The most striking of the eighteen stories collected in Darci Bysouth’s first book read like those moments in our lives that we may want to forget about but never can. They keep coming back to irritate us — conversations we had or should have had, events that refuse to be suppressed, adventures in our histories that turn out to have been rash or dangerous or stupid or maybe even a reminder of what could have been when we finally chose convention instead. “The Heartbreaks,” for instance, tells of a group of teens who, high on weed most of the time, drive madly from Central BC to California in the 1970s in search of a musical high as well. What they see and what they fail to see lives on, though on return they’re soon seduced by what passes for suburban security or hardscrabble domesticity or random regret.

In other stories as well — “Petey” and “Lost Boys” for example — whatever is left behind keeps coming back to the narrator, demanding to be looked at. Hard fathers grow old and weak and confused; brothers with disabilities frame their sibling’s future; a sister is saved from death only to succumb years later to an overdose. Brothers, sisters, adolescent friends: the ones that get away can never get away, not entirely, but nor can she (or he) ever readily go back.

Sharp, but seldom funny, these stories are for the most part both humane and solemn. Settings range from Vancouver to the Scottish isles, from a university campus to lakesides in the Cariboo, from the 1970s to much more recent times. In “Cryptodrome,” Mt. St. Helens blows up, a metaphorical parallel to the main action. Writing about magma in her diary, one character in this story observes that “crypto means hidden” — the narrative exposes some of the secrets of sexual awakening and consequent questions of responsibility, the characters variously shown to be troubled and insecure. In another story, a man seeks the depths of a lake where he’s been told lie the bones of the past, but of course he cannot find them and nor can he solve his present dilemma. In yet another story, a woman seeks out her child’s father, only to find that he’s scarcely interested in the boy he did not know about.

The line between the imagined and the real is thin. In “Marrakech,” a girl and her mother live in a trailer park, on the bare earnings that come from what the mother weaves and sells, in the decade before tie-dying became fashionable; the mother keeps talking longingly about the vivid life in Marrakech that she remembers, and the girl suffers through the social slights of her biased and dismissive classmates. Years later, however, having survived adolescence, the girl learns that her mother’s Marrakech was more the fantasy of a wounded mind than a Middle Eastern reality; the story could have stopped here, but when the girl (now a mature adult) sets out to seek the real Marrakech because it seems to promise more fulfillment than whatever passes for ordinary life does, then the story moves on — but resists closure: it’s as though longing has been passed from one generation to the next, like a problematic gene of disaffection and desire.

Bysouth is most persuasive when writing about BC’s ranch country: its small towns, its one-industry opportunities, its tight-lipped families and rugged beauty. As represented here, stubbornness is a recurrent characteristic of the region’s parents and children; manliness is used as a term of both approval and threat; escape is constantly on the characters’ minds. In dark times, in these northern towns, mills close, violence flares, children disappear and families collapse. That’s Bysouth’s subject here: she does not pretend to solve problems, but she demands that attention be paid to them, and the act of story-telling itself is what drives the fragments of memory. The “Lake of Bones,” her narrator writes,

is something we all know. We know it if we’re Carrier or Chilcotin or some kind of white, if we’re reserve or ranch or if we got one of those fancy apartments in town. It’s part of being from here, like the sweathouse and the shot-up road signs and the pack of horses left to run wild down the stampede grounds . . . The Lake of Bones is a terrible thing, terrible because of what’s underneath and hidden, but it’s a comfort too. It’s something that belongs to us.

And it belongs because it’s part of a story that’s shared — by old men on the salmon run, by “brush-cut white boys” at a Bible camp, by friends of the day, crouched around a circle with a joint. The “lost boys” of the title story may be dead, or may not be; reports of their disappearance may mislead; there may be any number of reasons why they’ve vanished. But the act of remembering is necessary, these stories say, no matter how much the memory irritates and the remembering hurts.

This is a first book of stories. There is much here that will engage any reader who is drawn to the human landscape of ranch country and to the fraught workings of memory, and many passages are enlivened by sharp detail. The stories themselves are sometimes a little long and a little rough: conversations can feel unworked and descriptive passages on occasion overwrought; several stories begin with a conventional ruse — a fragment of conversation that reads a little like a writing school’s motivational gesture: “Let’s go,” “Is he dead,” “You came” — but others are more formally adventurous, as in “The Things that Never Happen,” in which a set of clichéd assumptions turn out to hold hard truths. It’s when Bysouth probes these hard and hidden truths that her most arresting stories come alive.

— William (Bill) New



Review Lost Boys, SaskBooks, November 2019
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

Lost Boys is a short story collection with three-way heft: physical (eighteen stories), technical (diverse voices and plots; excellent characterizations; realism and magic realism are each employed to great effect), and emotional (wow). Effective art makes us think and feel, and in this, her first book, BC writer Darci Bysouth has mastered the tricky business of making the world seem both smaller and larger, and she’s made this reader’s heart turn over.

Innate talent? I expect so, but Bysouth also honed her craft at the University of British Columbia and the University of Edinburgh, and her work has appeared in respected literary journals and anthologies; these facts tell me that she paid her literary dues before breaking into the ISBN world with this fist-to-gut collection.

I could speak of the equally convincing male and female narrators; the recurring themes of sibling relationships, poverty, addictions, and mental illness; or of settings that range from the “sheep and potholes” of Scotland to dark Canadian forests. I could write about the double entendre, the details, the poetic language i.e., “The water was such a long way below that it looked like some other thing,” or how many of Bysouth’s stories lead us inside lives that would make most of us squirm, i.e., the girl who was a cutter: “My art is the razor notches on my thighs, oh God, daddy how I love those little mouths chafing against my jeans.” There are so many “I coulds,” but I want to concentrate on two stories I consider masterpieces: “Petey” and “Sacrifice.”

Like most of the stories here, “Petey” is told in first person, but it’s told by an unreliable narrator — unreliable, because he’s a drunk. He’s a drunk because his wife left him with their daughter “before Lily had said her first word;” there’s been an accident; and he’s on leave from work and expects to be fired. Seven-year-old Lily brings home an injured bird and we follow this whisky-soaked father down a rabbit hole of fantastic destruction until the story’s last impactful line, which carries so much gravity it compels one to reread the story, immediately.

“Sacrifice” is written through the perspective of Rachel: a single, aging, childless social worker in an office where everyone else has dependants/loved ones and rich lives outside of work. Rachel’s the employee who brings cupcakes to work because “there may be children visiting the office.” She “always admires the accomplishments of other people’s children.” Because this story is so credible, when it moves from one nightmare to the next, any reader with a heart will feel theirs drop at what unfolds. Extremely well set-up, full-circle story.

The stories here do tend toward darkness. In other words, they reflect the world as it is experienced by many. I admire Bysouth’s bravery and skill in writing about what hurts, and Thistledown Press for bringing her insightful stories to the world. Again, wow. I was so moved, I needed to sit and be still after reading these phenomenal stories.

— Shelley Leedahl