The late season is Stephen Hines’s first collection of short stories. It’s bleak. Close. A mirror in a toilet at work. The toilet is in a corridor that no one else walks down, and that’s the reason you chose it. Maybe you want to look at yourself. Maybe you want to lean on the sink and aim spit down the plughole. Hits the side, slides down as you sigh and get ready to go back to your cubicle.
One of Hines’s strengths is as a writer of what can’t be said, of what can only be thought. Of course, what can’t be said can, actually, often be said, but Hines’s exclusively male protagonists don’t know how. In ‘honeymoon’, a woman and her daughter take a boat out on a lake. The husband remains on shore and grows increasingly concerned the longer his family take to return. Like an everyday-poet on the tube, the man imagines increasingly elaborate explanations for what he considers his abandonment, rather than their disappearance and/or deaths. Selfish, he imagines a new life in that train carriage, with a faceless new family sitting opposite him. He fantasises about returning, old and remarried, to the shore of the lake years later, masquerading his pilgrimage as a search for closure, or redemption, when really he’s just relieved that something severe enough to get him off the hook has happened, because he could never find the words to rationalise walking away.
This leads to extreme cases of compensating and projecting throughout. In the collection’s penultimate story, ‘the book cellar’, Richard, a bookseller, maintains the façade that’s he’s content and happy, despite the exhaustion it causes him. Richard’s third-person narrator is parental. “He sits at the table and pulls his feet up under him and begins to read beneath the books that always seem ready to fall on him and if they did that would be just fine.”
Emotionally repressed, Richard tries to understand adult feelings of unrequited love, loneliness and depression, without, much like a child, the means to articulate them. But in ‘a 1946 DeSoto S11 Custom Convertible on the first day of spring’, Jerry understands his predicament with soporific clarity. He’s stuck in a thankless, dead-end job at a petrol station. Recently left by the lover he didn’t deserve. Dry as the tinnies that litter the floor around his camp bed in the back of the shop. When Brian, a local kid, skips school and pays Jerry a visit, Jerry sees an opportunity to stop Brian getting into trouble and to make enough money to leave his shit life behind.
These stories are atemporal. Their characters exist in a world defined by the consistency of shared feeling, rather than signifiers of era.
We know that change is both possible and necessary, and the unwillingness of many of Hines’s characters to realise this can at times be tedious. But this is an accurate portrayal of the human, specifically male, condition. It is a fear of being unknowable. Unlovable. Unfuckable. Basically, unsuccessful. Change is good, obviously, but the greatest moment in Jerry’s story is when he decides to ditch his ill-thought plan in favour prolonging the pointless nobility of his suffering.
These stories are atemporal. Their characters exist in a world defined by the consistency of shared feeling, rather than signifiers of era. Phones and cars become obsolete, whilst Hines illustrates with relieving apathy, not cynicism, the timelessness of mundanity. People are condemned to live miserable lives for the very act of trying to make them liveable in the first place. But what does it mean to be good in the eyes of God? What does good, or God, even mean? Hines consciously pushes the boundaries of what is considered socially acceptable behaviour without actually making any of his narrators commit unacceptable acts. Through them Hines flirts with language in an exploratory way, which makes for economic prose and agreeable dialogue, but which means his description is at times based on over-sharing. Less volatile than poking a wasp nest with a broom handle, it’s as though his protagonists are captives being forced into the unknown, frightening territories of conversation and relationships, on an expedition they’re sure they won’t come back from.
That these ordinary men have the potential to commit horrific acts is apparent, and makes for an uncomfortable read at times. There is an underling tenderness within them, sure, but even that threatens to boil over into anger and aggression the more Hines’s characters try, and fail, to make sense of their situations, adding danger where danger must not be. This is unsettling in the third person, but is somewhat alleviated when first person is used. In ‘what to do about the dog’, the narrative takes on a Holden Caulfield-esque tone when the protagonist loses his job. But that doesn’t matter. He didn’t want it anyway. He gets another one. “Work is what men do”, apparently, and it is this attitude that is essential to preventing the protagonist from regressing to self-involved adolescence again. Infantilisation does occur, though, and the focus falls predominantly on mother-son relationships, since fathers are often either absent or dead.
Women suffer at the hands of these men as though suffering fools. Mothers cannot reach out to their adult sons, and those sons, grown up, look for mothers in their wives. But it’s mostly too late for them. Everything is disengaged. Dialogue is sparse. Punctuation unnecessary. Stories flit between the stoic calm of suburbs and creeping countryside to the anxiety-inducing franticness of the city. And while ‘this time, right here’ is not the first story, its line “Leave me alone, please, I’m fine, please, leave me alone, things are fine”, spoken by a man immediately after crashing his car, perfectly captures the apathetic, self-involved ambience of male existence.
Hines flirts with ideas of euthanasia: to assist, and be assisted, but not necessarily in killing. Rather, in the death of a social idea; in the death of an outdated system built by the broken men who frequent Hine’s bars, linger at his motels, work at his petrol stations and pay sporadic, uncomfortable visits to their aging parents.
Crucial to maintaining the “unique ambience of exotic and sparse ordinariness” of Hines’s men is his reassuringly consistent use of temperature and climate. the late season is sparse, cold throughout. There’s snow, brown slush at the side of the road, a feeling that we’re spending time with the same man in each story: the father, son and ghost of something that could once have been; of something we all look back on with nostalgia, but which, actually, never truly existed. In ‘what old 78s cost’, a man’s elderly mother somehow escapes from the care home he’s put her in. But rather than go searching for her in the woods, he just wants to go home. Anger at the apparent incompetence of the care home staff is a projection of his failings as a son. This calls into question whether leaving her alone, to wander in the cold, would actually be better than putting her back inside. Hines flirts with ideas of euthanasia: to assist, and be assisted, but not necessarily in killing. Rather, in the death of a social idea; in the death of an outdated system built by the broken men who frequent Hine’s bars, linger at his motels, work at his petrol stations and pay sporadic, uncomfortable visits to their aging parents.
With spring on the horizon, there’s ample room for evolution in Hines’ world. We want the way these men behave to be erased. And they want it to, but they don’t know how, and they don’t yet know with what it should be replaced. They, like Hines’ readers, remain in a state of limbo that, I imagine, is not dissimilar to the sensation of drowning. It’s outer-body.
And yet there’s something prickly about the late season. There is, at the same time as this blissful complacency, a desperate loneliness and silent despair that binds its characters together more honestly than blood, sex or work. Yes, it’s Canada. Yes, you feel cold. Your socks feel wet. Shoes soaked through. Back and neck sweaty under too warm a coat in superficial autumn sunshine. It is an internal heat that warms you as you read, because you are reminded that there are other people dealing with exactly the same shit as you, but that you don’t have to be so constrained.
Harry Gallon’s work features in numerous publications and has won (and almost won), several competitions. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes (Dead Ink Books), was first runner up for Best Novella at the 2016 Saboteur Awards, and was longlisted for Not the Booker Prize 2016. His second, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, was published in July. He lives in London. @hcagallon
Stephen Hines‘s writing and artwork has appeared in many magazines and publications around the globe, including Anthenaeum, Grain, Prairie Fire, MILK, Regime and Gaspereau Review. He lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with his wife and son.
the late season is published by Tangerine Press.