In Kris Bertin’s debut short-story collection, a character’s father is “doing twenty years in Dorchester,” a Nova Scotia penitentiary. Drunk and high on schizophrenia drugs, the man’s son walks around Barrington Street in Halifax, “yelling and in a panic.”

Quite a few of the scammers, drifters and general losers in “Bad Things Happen” should be jailed or at least reported to authorities.

Despite the darkness, the 10 stories by this Halifax bartender make captivating reading. It’s hard to turn away from bad things when an author’s prose seduces you, and when he understands the world he’s dramatizing. “I’d made it through a real rough patch,” one story begins. Another starts, “Let’s say you’re a tough guy.” Still another, “There are two kinds of emptiness. The one I had, and the one I needed.” What follows reflects a mind gradually learning that various psychological and emotional problems are unsolvable.

In addition to Halifax, the bad, eerie things that Bertin describes take place in Montreal and in rural towns with little to recommend them.

In Onecdaconis, the Carnation store at the Esso truck stop is the place to socialize. Enamored of “hunky” Jason Parvis, a middle-aged Esso employee, two curious teenage girls break into his house, then regret what they find. In “The Narrow Passage,” garbage men on a rural route allow the Cliftons to leave whatever they want by the roadside, items that would be “unhaulable everywhere else.” “Their brains are scrambled,” Gene says of the family. His partner finds how deranged the Cliftons are when he refuses to take their swing set to “the sorting centre.”

In “Girl on Fire Escape,” a sex-trade worker steals from her employer, Sensualcam.com, nearly bankrupting the business. In “Your #1 Killer,” a strange, unstable son returns home to live with his mother. In “Alive and Can Move,” a drunken ex-janitor thinks he sees a building move.

Despite humorous lines and scenes, the bleakness is so great that you wish light could shine on these desolate souls.

One triumphant moment occurs in “Crater Arms.” In an apartment building where everything “smells like boiled eggs,” a new tenant sees Mrs. Tremblay, the owner, for the first time. “Draped in white blankets like a bride,” unable to speak or move because of an illness, she’s brought outside in a wheelchair. “She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in maybe my whole life,” the troubled renter thinks. Even Michelle, the obese spiritual medium pushing the wheelchair, becomes beatific by association with Mrs. Tremblay. Yet can we believe men like the renter, who suffer from alcoholic dementia or who’ve been hit too often in the head?

These are gritty stories, but very good ones, tough, truthful and unsettling.

 

Writer Anthony Bukoski of Superior, Wis., has reviewed for “Books in Canada,” “Canadian Literature” and “The Fiddlehead.”

Bad Things Happen
By: Kris Bertin.
Publisher: Biblioasis, 201 pages, $14.95.