It only takes a page or two to conclude that Daniel Griffin values precision – a precision not of meticulous detail, but of economy, of the extraneous shorn away until a vital core is reached: a core of character, of an exchange of words, of a scene, a story. He gets, as many a new writer does not, that the less an author says, the more the reader can enter, must enter, the process of imagining. Rather than being told what is, you collaborate in its discovery.
In Promise, the first story of this debut collection, a man and his young child make a rare visit to the man's brother, rare because the two men have rubbed each other the wrong way for years. The brother's wife has left him. She may have been assaulted beforehand. Griffin smartly controls our access to information; back-story is minimal, visuals come with a quick, snapshot clarity, dialogue is aptly terse yet rich with subtext. Marshall is a lit fuse; visiting Doug is the reluctant and under-equipped bomb squad. The child is present just enough to up the stakes and compel a deeper grasp of each brother's character. The tale's final twist, though blunt beside Griffin's other effects, is chilling.
The Last Great Works of Alvin Cale (one of the collection's two Journey Prize-winning stories) offers an aging artist living in a remote cabin along with canvases stretching back decades. He has had the satisfactions of a long career: Some of his paintings are in the National Gallery and his daily life is still an honouring and creation of the work. He learns that his only child, the son he's been estranged from for years, is dying of cancer. Both men are painters, the son mentored in the same cabin by his father. I'd be remiss in saying much more. The creative crucible of art is the story, and becomes Griffin's brim-full metaphor for both the real cancer and another one: male rivalry. It's shocking, what the father finally does, yet Griffin makes you almost an accomplice: You yearn to see the canvases that will result.
We know too well the sad tune of The Leap: A young guy showing off takes a crazy risk that ends in a life permanently altered. Marvin was a gifted gymnast until the late-night party trick off a porch rail left him paraplegic. Griffin starts with the present, segues back to the party, ends with the moment of drunken grace that goes horribly wrong. With the exception of an oddly extended game of pool that makes its point and then some, the story is steadily involving. What, in the final pages, wrings tears is not Marvin's loss of mobility, but a vast territory of longing that he glimpsed that night and now might never travel.
In Stopping for Strangers we join a brother and sister on a highway journey to say their goodbyes to a dying relative. They stop to pick up a rain-sodden teenage hitchhiker who proudly shows them a large crucifix tattoo on his forearm. Through a brief series of misadventures, they end up, sans teen, at the lad's house, and are made to stay for coffee. The older brother turns out to be a soldier recently home from the Rwandan horror. Griffin's echoes of southern Gothic – Flannery O'Connor transplanted to Trenton, Ont. – give the tale's elliptically spun meanings a growing resonance. Final insights are left to the expertly primed reader.
Griffin's talent for vivifying characters through dialogue can give even secondary figures their star turns. In Martin and Lisa, Martin's sister, slightly drunk at a family party, is a marvel of snarky innuendo. As she fires poison arrows at Martin's wife, you can't help but think, Wow, what a snide, nasty piece of work – but funny. The tale itself, despite a solidly engaging cast of players, loses some ground as it winds up, climaxing with a car crash and a baldly portentous final sentence.
X reconfirms Griffin's gifts. We join a young man hounded by doubts and apprehension as he and his ex-girlfriend anticipate the birth of a child. The man's mother, two raccoons and a rifle enrich the drama and spin the story into a fascinating thematic realm. The tale raises large, eternal, unanswerable questions, while never labouring under the burden.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.