“The more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.”
--Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions
The epigraph to Shane Neilson’s 2013 Will alerts the reader before the first short story that there’ll be more than a few autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or attendant studies among the set of eighteen. Neilson, a physician, wastes no time. “The Entirely Beautiful” is the most harrowing story in a collection mass-tattooed with medical blunders, emergency chaos, angry reaction, and painful reflection. This is a good choice in sequencing. If you can get through story one (better, if you enjoy it), it’s a good bet you’ll move through the blood and anguish with eyes wider than an initial, indifferent perusal might have gained.
Though the operating room and palliative care facility make for a lot of the settings, medical care is also backgrounded and foregrounded outside the hospital. “Gorblimey!”, one of the compilation’s best, a speculation on poet-physician John McCrae, is a crafty mix of risque, ad hoc, soldier-bellowing song lyrics, aphorism (“Poetry is no ounce of cure, words won’t cleanse my lungs.”), and dramatic ambivalence.
Neilson can take off the scrubs, though, and travel to the hockey rink, with “Fucking Shit Ice”, a gamey insider look at the minors with a ringer, his friend, and his coach; a terrifically funny (and wistful) “Prawn”, about a beleaguered high-pressure inside salesman with admirable ‘fuck you’ ethics; and the ambitious “The Great Newfoundland Novel”, a boisterous phantasmagoria featuring a forlorn Nabokov in the snow and mist of Newfoundland.
Neilson shows a surprisingly refreshing tactic of burying any didacticism within the action of the narrative framework. The violent and drunken father; the superior medical superior: in less patient, or more reactionary, hands, these characters could have been a short road to caricature and easy damnation. But the invested author makes us look at them, difficult, at times, as it is, with concern, if not empathy.
A terrific collection that, I'm sure, will reward future readings.