The only thing that can be said definitively about Jarman’s stories is that they do not resemble the kind of blandly naturalistic pieces of psychological realism that are normally associated with Canadian short stories.
Some writers write from the head, others write from the heart. Jarman writes from the gut. Jarman’s stories are not places to turn for comfort or succour. He is a ridgidly unsentimental writer, who eschews pat resolutions and reassuring platitudes.
Instead, he writes subversively about outcasts and roughnecks, men who are desperately trying to eke out an existence on the margins of a society that seems ferociously inimical. The stories are told with a heightened awareness of language and its ability to stretch an contort itself[.]
I must confess that despite these laudatory remarks indicating that Jarman’s work is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been looking for in Canadian fiction, the story published in CNQ (“Cowboys, Inc.”) did not fill me with confidence. The story is a nonlinear collection of intense, uncomfortable moments in the lives of three people as they pile into a Volvo and try to run from the world, and themselves, through the highways and back roads of the American South. it’s not a bad story, by any stretch, but it does have a vague, dreamlike quality to it, and while I’m sure that it probably felt fresh in 1984, it’s something that I’ve seen more than enough of at this point in my career as a reader. Jarman’s use of the present tense takes some of the edge off, but not enough to make this story a favourite. I was relieved to see that I’m not alone in that, though; in the afterword, Jarman himself admits that some critics have advised readers to skip the story. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m definitely not in love with the piece.
The subject matter of the stories in Dancing Nightly in the Tavern could become unrelentingly depressing were it not for Jarman’s keen eye for surprising and beautiful details. Jarman has seeded each of these stories with lovely imagery, small details that have little or no bearing on the plot or major themes but nonetheless stick in one’s mind. My favourite of these images is from “Jesus Made Seattle Under Protest.” Ray, an unemployed oil worker, daydreams of a waitress, “her naked ribs floating from the long rope of her backbone” (p. 94).
Dancing Nightly at the Tavern was my eighth selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Flight Paths of the Emperor, by Steven Heighton.