I’ve broken an arm, right at the elbow, where it seized. I’ve torn out ligaments, burned a hole into my wrist with an iron that still shows up bandage perforation and always will. Scars run like tributaries along kneecaps, triceps, ankles. I even bear the forceps marks of birth. None of that is strange. Everyone is decorated with injuries and it isn’t till you try showing one off, telling the tale, only to have another uncovered right back at you to outdo it, like the scene in Jaws, that you realise how important they are. Like you’ve been carved out of flesh into something a little different by experience. Like the awful pain told in any old scar story is that much easier to relate to owing to how you felt something similar that one time. And pain bonds.
All of the stories in Once You Break a Knuckle involve injury, body damage, pain. Mostly as a result of violence. Reading about the kid killed by a sabotaged swing, or the man trapped underneath the weight of a collapsed heifer, it’s the thought of the physical that stays with you. I’ve never broken a knuckle but I can picture it, I can almost feel it. It’s a device DW Wilson employs to bond us to the characters in his stories. We’re that much closer. We feel them that much more. And it reveals a vulnerability in tighter close up, one they can’t ever express for themselves.
The stories take place in the Kootenay Valley, a remote district in Western Canada, populated by woodsmen, factory and mill labourers, builders. It’s filled with the rugged sort of outdoorsy types Hemingway and Steinbeck would’ve carved out of forest timber and mountain rock itself but here they’re cut down and dissected with a hand probably a little more familiar with the reality. If someone drinks too much it doesn’t only affect him. There aren’t any heroic individual tragedies or tasks. Everyone is connected. One man’s problem is his wife’s and his son’s and the neighbour’s. These are people in small communities. And they hurt one another.
I brought the pad up. He squeezed his hand to a fist then let the fingers unroll, muscles tense. Eleven years of kung fu had taught him to strike with the heel of his palm – the second-hardest impact point on the lower arm. He jabbed the bag in quick succession: right, left-right, right, his lips whitened to an O, his breath pumping with his arms.
The elasticity of bone describes a young man, Will Crease, help his father, the local cop, get ready for one final kung fu tournament before being deployed to Kosovo with the UN. If the book doesn’t exactly have central characters then these are as close as it gets. They introduce us to the district in the first story, occur throughout, and see us out in the final pages with the title piece. John Crease wears sweatshirts depicting bears gnawing human bones that read ‘Don’t write cheques your body can’t cash’. He names his fists ‘Six months in the hospital’ and ‘Instant death’. For him, pain is weakness leaving the body. Will’s inability to express to the man that he doesn’t want him dispatched to a war zone comes to a head when he finds he can move up two weights to fight him in the tournament. If he beats his father, breaks a bone, he’ll have to stay. It’s a bizarre but sincere love expressed through injury and violence, typical of the book. That Wilson considers it an acutely male kind of relationship can be read in the lack of any female lead characters, or any female characters of particular strength in the book, save perhaps one metalwork teacher. Wilson also emphasises the masculine through devices like constant detailing of technique and why something is done, like the piece about the heel of the palm before, or that
…he kicked out in a way he had taught me would break someone’s knee, because you only need fourteen pounds of pressure to break someone’s knee.
Men in the know can’t be shut up telling each other these things. Women just know them. The book is laced with details dropped in on how a character went about wiring a home, refitting an old car, fashioning a heliotrope. The mechanics of how things work, how a man interacts with his world. It’s clichéd, not to mention erroneous, to suggest men don’t communicate. For Wilson this is how they communicate.
He set up his wire spool and plugged in a drill and bored holes through studs and the floor joists overhead. The way the bit curled into wood satisfied him, always had – that hint of heated spruce in the sawdust and at the tip of the metal. He never minded wood chips in his hair and never wore a ballcap to keep them out.
The crafts these men have, the attention to detail, the pride in good work, is the measure of them, at least to themselves. As with Bandini’s stone mason father in the John Fante novels, they’re almost characters of a previous age. Watching the language employed to describe it all reveals more. Curt monosyllabic bursts stretching to two syllables for rhythm, motored along by verbs almost every second or third word. The sentences are Carver tight. This is the economic speech pattern of the American male in literature from Hemingway forward, spelling out techniques in overhead wiring, assault, metal work, like they were jabs to the gut. Interestingly, these come book-ended by slow moments, pauses for longing. Ray, the handyman from the piece above, fails to perform sexually when he finally takes his apprentice up on her offer of a beer, still heartbroken over a former love. Elsewheree, Duncan knows his girlfriend has another man back where she goes to college and can’t quite bring himself to present her the ring he’s bought. These are men who fail at what they really want. And try to compensate in all the expected ways.
It’s no better for the intellectual. In The Mathematics of Friedrich Gauss, the narrator knows his wife is fooling around with more of the outdoorsy types in the district. He’s a maths teacher, somewhat obsessed by the German titular character and had married above himself physically, so he sees it. Evidently she is in agreement, and disappears with their son toward the end, leaving him alone with the heliotrope he made for the boy. His lack of physicality, his focus on the cerebral, the emotional, is what stings him in the end. If the book is trying to present the male condition as a no win rope pull between the brain and gut it has Will Crease as a man saved through his art in another gentle nod back to Fante.
Will has returned from studying creative writing at a reputable college on the coast. He’s man enough to shape up to his father at kung fu, to want to take up the baton as the town’s local cop, and yet plugged in emotionally enough to foster an honest relationship with his best friend’s sister to a point where they’re almost ready to make a go of it. A rarity in the stories and, we gather, the district. A biographical veneer to a first book like this is pretty normal. The familiarity with the topic, the landscape, the details on technique almost elevated to a kind of chant, coupled with our knowledge that the book itself is the result of Wilson completing a PHD in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, far from his native British Columbia, are all telling. Will Crease may not be DW Wilson, but he runs it pretty close and the finale, where we understand his friend isn’t going to let him mire himself in the same outpost life everyone else is scrambling to escape speaks of a man who has left it all behind him but won’t ever let it go. The Canadian Rockies are likely to fuel this writer’s fiction his whole life. Certainly, they’re front and centre again in his first complete novel, Ballistics, released May of this year. In the last scene of ‘Once You Break a Knuckle’, Will and his father are left alone by the fire in the half finished home, taking and draining beer cans.
Will and his old man could have been the same guy from two different moments in time. Their talk was all murmurs and sudden bursts that made them go red-faced with guffaws.
This is language as fractals, working from the cut three, four, five letter words lined up like the right, left-right, right, of the kung fu and outward to the same sudden bursts the men themselves speak in, live in, fight in and work in. It’s an aggressive economy of speech hinting toward the same violence that breaks knuckles, pops shoulders and sees men shot in the lung, but for all that, when employed in exception, with the two men talking, laughing together, it takes on something higher. Writers before Wilson have found the same and ‘Once You Break a Knuckle’ is a child of many fathers, but no less valuable for that.