Gerard Collins’ collection of short stories, Moonlight Sketches, introduces the fictional small town of Darwin, located somewhere beyond the overpass in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Sixteen intertwined stories take the audience inside the everyday lives of Darwin’s inhabitants, and if there are still folks out there who believe nothing notable ever happens in small towns, these tales will quickly change your mind.
Sherlock Holmes once told a horrified Dr. Watson, “It is my belief Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Collins, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, understands that rural communities can provide the perfect cover for people with questionable intentions and dark secrets to hide. The cops are outnumbered by the criminals in Darwin so justice gets meted out rather infrequently.
Three stories in particular illustrate the lawlessness that can occur in isolated hamlets and they come one after the other in quick succession. It’s a good thing I read “Two Lesbians Walk Into A Bar”, “Chosey Bilch Makes Friends, Influences People” and “The Darkness and Darcy Knight” while lying on a sunny beach in Cuba, because these stories could turn even the greatest of optimists into cynics. It would seem no good deed goes unpunished in Darwin, and without giving anything away I can only say that I truly hope Darcy Knight made it out of that tub.
Other Darwinians battle with less sinister, but no less compelling problems that are endemic to small town life. Like many rural NL communities, Darwin is facing a future without the fishery, and very little outside investment from the government or the private sector. The characters in “Trust Fund”, “Hold Out”, “Moonlight Sketches” and “Jack’s Place” must all decide between stagnation and the brave new world that calls to them, but does not entirely appeal to them. The decision to leave NL or stay is something many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have considered at one point or another, and Collins’ stories reflect how different, yet similar the choice is for anyone to make.
Out of all Darwin’s varied inhabitants my favorite by far is Davey, who appears in “Tar Cat”, “Exit the Warrior” and “The Sign”. Collins clearly likes Davey as well, because he shows up more often than any other character. He’s a smart kid cursed with empathy and an inability to stomach violence in a town where all the other young men like to shoot things. He is especially maligned by his older and somewhat sadistic cousin Benny who we get to know better in the story, “Private Thoughts”. It is difficult to like Benny at first. Even Davey strongly dislikes him occasionally, but he grows on you while teaching his younger cousin many life lessons and they share a strong bond until one goes where the other cannot follow.
The stories “Break, Break, Break”, “Run, Mother, Run”, “Fish of the Damned” and “Our Julia” all feature well-written and nuanced female characters. Collins’ women deal with break ups, unplanned pregnancies, absentee husbands, family tragedies and their personal demons in an authentic manner. As a woman it is always a joy for me to read stories written by men who truly strive to understand women and Collins excels at this. I’m as taken with Collins’ female characters as Danny, the teenage narrator of “The Convertible”, is with the two women the author dreamed up to interrupt the young man’s otherwise boring work day.
It is tempting to say Moonlight Sketches is for anyone who enjoys NL literature, but it is for anyone who enjoys good books period. The town of Darwin and its inhabitants are as unique to our province, but their stories and voices are filled with a familiar universality that will appeal to serious readers everywhere regardless of their location of background.