As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories by Matthew St. Amand
BOOK REVIEW by Robert Earl Stewart
August 2002, The Drive Magazine
That he was born in Windsor the year Marvin Gaye was singing “What’s Goin’ On?” is a point Matthew St. Amand makes early on in his debut collection of fiction, As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories.
It might seem like an academic point, a literary orientation device; something only those born in 1971 could care about or understand. I think St Amand’s downplaying the impact of the reference when he says it’s an homage to a personal hero (one of Motown’s greats), to geography and to a time of transition. “In V., Thomas Pynchon wrote that everybody has an unaccountable longing for the decade of their birth,” St. Amand says. But it’s much more than that mentioned in the first story “Aisling” (pronounced Ash-ling, Gaelic for a dream or reverie), the Marvin Gaye reference primes the reader for a peculiar collection of stories, informed by rock `n’ roll, nostalgia, a proximity to Detroit, the inherent cross-border tensions and Windsor itself: “A city,” writes St. Amand “that gets altogether too much stick for being small and slow and industrial.”
“I don’t take any of those things to be negative at all;” he said during our recent lunch at Kurley’s A.C. on Erie Street “It’s like saying your grandmother’s mashed potatoes have lumps in them. It doesn’t necessarily diminish your enjoyment of them.”
The eleven stories that comprise As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories were written over a six year period in which St Amand graduated from the Master of Arts Creative Writing program at the University of Windsor and spent two years in Ireland, working as a business abstract writer while honing his fiction at the Irish Writer’s Centre on Parnell Square in Dublin. Like virtually every young writer, he wrote in obscurity, collected a paltry wage for demanding, uninteresting work, and collected rejection slips on the side - finding a publisher in the insular world of big house publishing was a dispiriting, seemingly impossible task.
“Things were rough in Ireland;” he recalled over lunch. “I ate Twix and oxtail soup -- they were giving the cans away.”
After returning to Windsor in 1999 and marrying wife Michelle Murphy-St Amand in 2001, he began a correspondence with Ray Hoy, owner and publisher of The Fiction Works, a small press based in Lake Tahoe, Nevada A deal was struck and As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories went on the market in late July of this year. It was a long time coming, and as a result, St. Amand dedicated the book to the late John Kennedy Toole, “patron saint of unpublished writers.” Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, 12 years after his death, a despairing suicide over his continually rejected manuscript. “From Toole we can learn that tastes change;” reasons St Amand. “You’ve got to stick at it There’s all kinds of secular saints around us - Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan - it’s so hard nowadays because we live with these media constructed images of these people.” St Amand explores the sometimes conflicted, always mystique-laden lives of our secular saints in stories like “Come Out and Play” and “Journey to the Gate.” Inspired by an early ‘90’s Lou Reed Concert at Detroit’s Fox Theater, “Come Out and Play” explores the vulnerability of the artist in the form of Wolf Kearney, a wizened rock’n’ roll icon in the twilight of a career, assailed by personal demons, “groupies with notebooks” (i.e. journalists), and an audience that expects to hear all their favourites played in a certain way. In “Journey to the Gate,” one of a handful of stories set in Ireland, St. Amand chronicles his own pilgrimage to the Vico Road gate that guards the entrance to the home of U2’s Bono.
“In an age when celebrities do everything to hide where they live, Bono’s gone to the expense of having his own writing and graffiti etched into a gate made out of copper tiles,” says St. Amand, who sent an offering of his own writing over the wall.
Revenge and slapstick commingle with bizarre results in “Under the Bridge,” another story set to the tune of rock’n’ roll, in which musicians from the thinly fictional Celtic rock outfit Auld Sod find a Vernor’s can stuffed with bags of cocaine on Riverside Drive beneath the glittering arch of the Ambassador Bridge. Cross-border gigs, ne’er-do-well sound engineers, mysterious bags of take out food, and murder propel the plot through a series of startling and baroque double crosses. There are no heroes, only desperate musicians; the cynical and all too real side of the independent music scene as opposed to the professional pyrotechnics and arena rock sound that provided St Amand with some of his first childhood heroes.
“Rock exposed me to writing,” St. Amand says. “I saw that writing was something that everyone could participate in. Hey, even Iggy Pop wrote lyrics.”
St Amand ventures into some vaguely Lynchian parallel identity crisis territory in “Grudgingly,” the story of Larry, who returns -Te from a winter getaway in northern Ontario only to learn via his answering machine that several people, amongst them : recently departed ex-girlfriend, have read the obituary in the paper. A drunken tour of Windsor’s downtown bar scene nearly lands in bed with a provocative cousin, but Larry opts out in favour of morals and exacting a morbid revenge on his ex- chilling and ambiguous.
The crux of As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories is "Hadley" the tale of a summertime first romance between Hadley and Wendell, pre-teens struggling to communicate in a new medium—the poetry and language of love. Their new found friendship and unspoken affection towards each other is complicated all the more by Hadley’s deafness. The ending to this story is crushing, St. Amand at the top of his game. Real tears ran down my cheeks. I knew this story all to well from my own adolescence.
“The ending to ‘Hadley’ was really hard to write,” St Amand admits. “I didn’t want that to be the ending at all. Wendell just misses the message, completely. That happens.”
That St Amand didn’t talk himself out of the ending as it stands is commendable. With another fiction manuscript in the works, it’s that kind of tough decision making that separates the fictional wheat from the chaff, scribes from the scribblers. Sometimes unconventional, sometimes traditional, refreshingly confessional without being overly introspective, and always entertaining, As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories is good fiction well written. It’s good to see writing like this coming out of Windsor. We could certainly use more of it.