Derek Hayes must certainly be the only Canadian writer who has taught high school on three continents and been graced with a cover blurb from Martin Amis. It's impossible to enter this story collection without vaulting hopes.
We open with A Feel for America and its trio of young teachers in Taiwan, three-quarters of the faculty at grouchy Mr. Hou's English-language school. John, our tale-teller, answered an ad in Toronto and now shares a grotty Taipei flat with a sporty American, Samuel, and the violently snooty Adam, a Brit who really should go home before he injures someone. One of his subtler aggressions is underwear that hangs on every available object because in Taipei, "it's humid." Hayes's remarkably redolent setting backdrops a fascinating three-way tango ending in a decisive power shift.
Next up is The Maladjusted, offering a completely convincing journey into manageable mental illness. Among his anti-social eccentricities, Mike collects discarded furniture, fashioning it into elaborate tunnels and mazes in his apartment as a challenge to his social worker. No mental slouch, Mike engages in "Kantian thought experiments" and discovers a talent for chess that proves worth developing.
Whether Melanie is mentally ill or just troubled would depend on who you ask. She holds down a job, but her social anxiety and petty fibbing are debilitating. That's Very Observant of You is both the story's title and the snide comment (from a waiter) that breaks her from her shell. The closing dialogue – largely an indignant burst of monologue from Melanie – rounds the tale off smartly.
Green Jerseys filters a Toronto Greek immigrant's work as a teaching assistant through a sports metaphor. Gus's school time makes for some of his happiest moments, and also his most frustrating; his English fluency is shaky while his teaching quirks rub superiors the wrong way. He comes to realize that, in the guise of career development, his boss is pushing him out. Hayes doesn't take sides. The story's dilemmas flow inevitably from its deft grappling with human foibles.
In Maybe You Should Get Back Here, Max and Nadia share a bed. With them lives Chris, Max's old college roommate. They cook and eat and watch TV together, tossing out their usual affectionate or testy sarcasms. Lately, a household shift is occurring – or is Max just imagining it? He forces a change. The premise is not surprising here, but Hayes's storytelling, eschewing closure, finally is.
An Empty Tank of Gas explores similar affectional shifts among housemates, adding the compelling complexities of life in Istanbul. Two imported English teachers share a flat with an adult student whose charms vie with her reasonable aversion to tidying up man litter. There are some gratuitous flirtations with the travel genre here, vivid enough to be forgivable.
Russell lives with his mom in Toronto. She even helps him negotiate time off his job for a foreign vacation. A Wonderful Holiday moves subtly toward the wake-up moment when, at the Hanoi hotel check-in, we see Russell mistaken for a native by the clerk. Hayes's shrewd choice, for four misleading pages, to let us see a white Canuck in our mind's eye makes us feel Russell's disoriented condition all the more acutely. Vietnamese comes at him with most every encounter, and he can reply only in abashed Canadian English. Watching him grow into his neglected roots is increasingly gratifying.
The 16 entries include some lapses, stories that feel flawed in conception or stranded in mid-development. Tom and Wilkie attempts, in 10 pages, to encompass six decades in the life of a small Ontario farming community. Hayes wisely filters the years through the limited viewpoints of just two men, but the overreaching ambition (and easy sentiment) of the effort leave both cast and story feeling two-dimensional. Shallowness is simply a petty e-mail from a disgruntled office worker: a pot inanely smearing a kettle. Inertia presents intriguing characters but ends as a rote life lesson on the risks of dropping out of school and smoking weed all day.
Misfires aside, the collection is rich with engaging characters, keenly evoked settings and a sensitive eye for the margins and the marginalized. To quote Amis, Derek Hayes is indeed "worth keeping an eye on."
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.