"Confidence," Russell Smith's collection of short stories, is his first book published in the United States. But with several publications behind him in Canada, he is appearing for us in medias res, just like the characters in "Confidence."
One story begins with a leg sticking out a cab window; another mid-nonsensical conversation; others with mysterious phone calls or texts. Stick with these scenes a moment past the initial disorientation, and you'll find that what Smith withholds in exposition he provides in mood. The frenetic movement from one experience to the next and the seeming randomness of people and encounters are all the back story we need.
These are tales of the modern cosmopolis. The particular city in "Confidence" happens to be Toronto — even former Mayor Rob Ford makes an appearance — but it could be any major Western city.
We know gentrification, prescription drugs, absorption in handheld screens and the psychic drain of continually comparing ourselves with others, and it does us good to see these phenomena so deftly satirized.
In the story "TXTS," Leo — who resents young people "jabbing their thumbs at plastic cases as switchboard operators used to plug and unplug jacks" — finds himself preoccupied with his own phone during what turns out to be an all-around disappointing first date. Afterward, he reads about himself on the woman's Urban Dating blog: "I could see him trying to keep his eyes focused on me — you know when you know when a guy is trying really hard not to stare at your boobs? … We should have some new word for that surreptitious glancing-at-your-phone thing."
We infer something of the project from the title story, which closes with an aspiring writer standing outside an exclusive restaurant where he has failed to fit in with the well-off types making the scene. "What he needed was some kind of confidence. He had confidence in his writing, and that was it. That's where he'd show them. He'd show them confidence. He'd come back tomorrow night, and the night after that, and write down everything he saw."
But what gives "Confidence" its emotional power is the isolation of the characters amid all their connectivity. Smith's humor takes on a darker aspect when we appreciate the loneliness of the lives he depicts. Story after story reveals characters with secrets, lies and deceits. Whether evidence of an affair or lust, identity or insecurity, everyone is concealing something of who they are from their intimates. Appearances are what count for Smith's Torontonians. It makes for a sad and funny and vivid portrait that we hope isn't as true as we know it is.
Scott Parker is a writer/book critic in Montana.