Story collections are tough. They’re tough to sell to publishers and to readers, of course, but even if you get that far, they’re tough to finish reading. There’s a stack of short story collections on my shelf, half-read, and many of which are by awesome authors. The ones that get read front to back, all at once, usually find a way to vary their voice, protagonists, and content. They are rare and they are always special.
Kris Bertin’s Bad Things Happen is a rare and special book. You absolutely should read it.
Bertin has collected ten of his stories, many of which have previously appeared in print throughout the CanLit journal scene. As such, they are well-polished, beautiful little stories in and of themselves. Primarily they centre around individuals on the margins of lawful society, the small-time con-men and recovering alcoholics and dirtbag teenagers of the world. These are stories embedded in classic Canadian realism but with a fresh perspective, a lot of play, and unique things to say. In other words, Bertin is in the company of writers like Alexander MacLeod (who edited the book), making CanLit new and wild and interesting again.
I’d read a bunch of Bertin’s stories and was looking forward to the book, but I was also expecting story-collection fatigue to set in. After all, there’s some similarity in content across his pieces. But Bertin’s found a way to make every story in the collection count and do its own thing. He uses both male and female protagonists to good effect. One fantastic story, “Make Your Move”, is written in the second person and reads like a collection of hypotheticals that spiral into funnier and funnier territory. The ratio between heartbreaking and darkly funny is tweaked in each piece. Characters have varying degrees of control over their lives, and so some stories focus on change while others dwell on how to live with the things outside of our control. Some pieces are tough, and others have a mushy sentimental core.
Bertin’s even managed to get me interested again in the dysfunctional family tale, a subgenre I thought I was exhausted with. But “The Story Here” could be categorized as such, and is probably the best piece in all of Bad Things Happen. Bertin perfectly encapsulates that powerlessness that adult children feel around their parents, as well as how mounting tensions manifest and ripple in hilarious, heartbreaking, awful, and ultimately compelling ways. It’s an incredible story. And it’s not even the only dysfunctional family tale in the collection!
Not everything works for me—”The Narrow Passage” ends in a way I still can’t reconcile, and “The Eviction Process” feels as though we are only starting act II when it finishes—but on the whole this is a uniformly great read. I couldn’t stop this book once I started it, and I was sad when there were no more stories left. If you’re at all the type to enjoy short fiction, this is the best collection that I’ve read in recent memory. Go pick up Bad Things Happen.