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Review: Punishing Ugly Children, by Darryl Joel Berger

There's dedication, and then there's dedication. At the top of this capricious story collection, Darryl Joel Berger dedicates his work to a (real) blogger who loves her sewing machine, then to a mixed bag of characters - including "my dad" - who may be figments or not. Berger's intro is finally about the gift of a mind altered by a car crash: "One man's brain injury, another man's awakening."

Published in a handful of literary magazines, Berger was a finalist for the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and has won the David Adams Richards Prize. Actual car crash or no, the author's dreamy-to-nightmarish line drawings preceding each story seem just what you'd expect from a brain stroked teasingly by the Grim Reaper.

Throughout the book, in fact, the writing is driven by leap-frog impulses of grim and teasing. Hard upon the concussion awakening we're plunged into the lair of an African dictator-warlord whose fetish amulet is a horse trinket made in the Chinese toy factory that opens the story. A take on the resilient six-degrees-of-separation meme, the piece is darkly fascinating.

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In "Free Rein," a reckless gambler ponders Clausewitz on war while losing big on the horses. When his girlfriend wins for him on the last race he vaults over the rail and takes to the track running. Vividly evoked racetrack culture takes the prize here, while meanings remain more elusive.

In "Victory Girl," global climate change is compressed into a few months of catastrophic end-time in Saskatoon. Our doomed girl seems not overly perturbed to die young in "a city full of practical, modest people who make common leaps of false logic. Victory loathes them."

A kaleidoscopic snapshot of a wedding reception is delightfully cringe-making. As late-morning sun invades the hung-over groomsman in his dishevelled bed, "the hotel room seems pushed in... the curtains are too hot to look at. Something smells sour." He dimly recalls naked breasts looming, just before he passed out.

Berger can leap from a familiar comic scenario to a rural Russian church full of burnt corpses, then to an absurdist Asian dictatorship where citizens flee carpet bombing with Teutonic cries of "Schlechte Bomben!" and "Ich verdiene es!" while Pitbull Generals are executed for making inadequate apologies to the Wu Wan King.

The longest story unfolds as a series of irritable e-mails in the procedure-blighted offices of a University for Jesus. Another entry begins with a man who has guns in place of hands, yet the rest of the tale presents him with ordinary hands for hands, as if the opening image proved too big a challenge. These and some other tales read like hastily packaged riffs from the subconscious, galloping on impulse and quirk, still waiting be corralled.

Then Berger once again sharpens his focus. "In the Kingdom of Chicken" is a taut weave of loneliness and festering anger - the inner monologue of a single woman at a dinner party, rattling her chains of resentment and self-censure. At just two pages, the story's compression efficiently fuels its emotional engine.

"Death of a Dictator" offers a satirical love story that dovetails the perils of Internet courtship with the tortured love that subdued tribes can harbour for their oppressors. Though Berger's message is a tad conspicuous, he grapples pleasingly with the psychological roots of tyranny. "On the day of Your Release" deftly captures one man's fantasy escape from an office job that's become a petty hell. A closing tweak brings the point home. "Simone Calling" is another standout, a straight-ahead tale about reconnecting with an old lover and the unaltered, amiable irritations that give past affections their nostalgic bite.

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Berger's talent is fresh and volatile, his imagination often smartly channelled, other times rampant or simply meandering. The best work here proves him an ambitious and singular new voice, one that will only get better as craft distills impulse.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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