Book Review: Two Man Tent

Two Man Tent, Robert Chafe, 216 pgs, Breakwater Books, breakwaterbooks.com, $19.95

The debut short story collection from Newfoundland-based playwright Robert Chafe takes on the questions of longing and possibility inherent to distance, whether it is emotional of physical. The intimate proximity referenced in the book’s title is belied by, in story after story, attempts to negotiate chasms between fathers and sons, next-door neighbours, and distant lovers.

Chafe is a talented writer with a particular patience for chipping away at the surface of a situation. The nuances of neuroticism, loneliness, and fear simmer behind each story, an inevitable, eventual interference. In a story about an older man living in social isolation who refuses to evacuate despite an incoming forest fire, Chafe describes the moment where stubborn avoidance, at long last, is no longer tenable: “He saw it across the top of the hill then. What had settles in the previous days into an ever-present and pulsing underlight against the smoke-fed clouds had finally crested the ridge… Now the black of the treed hill against the night sky was cut with an orange scar, the upper bowl of the valley like an edge of smoldering paper.”

Stories like these, pretty much all about men, and often about the violence that comes with hard-learned emotional frigidity and socially enforced silence, make up most of the book, pasted against backgrounds of woods, rock and sea (hey, he is from Newfoundland). But these vignettes are interspersed with an ongoing conversation that is by all indications, real and from Chafe’s life. Dispatches sail across the continent between the two men, once strangers. Starting with a conversation on Scruff, a gay hookup/dating app, and moving into gchat, emails, texts and undocumented phone calls, the conversation is at once boring and totally addictive. Indeed, the banality of text flirtation, in the context of loneliness, can become a open vessel for our anxieties and sense of alienation. I read the other stories patiently, but the somewhat gimmicky format of a real-life text message became something of a treat — making it harder to pay attention to the prose.

Even though the exchanges between the author and his distant crush, whom he eventually meets, are most often about what they ate that day and whether they should or shouldn’t talk about politics, there’s something still sweet (and perhaps, for this gay reader, too very familiar) about the exchanges. I had a hard time not comparing it to Tex, Beau Rice’s absolutely genius 2014 book using a similar format and a similar conceit. But within this collection it serves an a successful fugal note against stories that occasionally feel like repeats of alienation-via-Canadiana.

The stories in Two-Man Tent are plain, familiar, light on moments of intense drama but fraught with tension and disappointment. They aren’t lifechanging, so they aren’t overwrought, and that’s precisely where their quiet success lies. (Jonathan Valelly)

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