Review: DW Wilson’s ‘Once You Break A Knuckle’

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When I heard D.W. Wilson’s book was about the small towns of my home province, BC — not to mention the tradesmen I worked summers with in my undergrad years — it didn’t get my heart racing. Rural life isn’t a subject I gravitate to naturally.

But Wilson has garnered a lot of attention recently, so when his book came out I thought I’d take a look. I’m glad I did.

Firstly, it’s pretty bad-ass. And ‘bad-ass’ is the sort of adjective you’ll find in Once You Break A Knuckle. It’s a compelling mix of girl problems, tested friendships, and redneck beatdowns. Who knew Invermere was so exciting?

Wilson’s style is lean and lyrical, with just enough working-class wordplay to make the stories warm. His characters don’t drive, for example, they tear-ass down the Trans-Canada. They also get lonely, betrayed, and throttled to within an inch of their lives. These are not the kind of stories where someone stares wistfully into the cloudy sky, sighs wistfully, and wistfully pours him or herself a cup of Earl Grey. Things happen, people change. Some die. It’s exciting.

Wilson’s story “The Dead Roads” won the BBC Short Story Prize last year, but my favourite in the collection is “Sediment”. It’s about a young Jehovah’s Witness who saves a vulnerable boy from a thrashing by a school bully. The unlikely friendship that develops out of this incident shapes their lives in unforeseen ways, and the story takes you on a journey through the meaning of loyalty and sacrifice. Like many of the stories in Once You Break A Knuckle, it achieves a nice balance of tenderness and restraint, introspection and ass-kicking. And there’s a girl involved, to round things out.

The writing throughout the collection is elegant, and the stories are skillfully told. Invermere springs to life as a place of both pastoral magic and unchecked terror. And the characters that populate this landscape — longing youths, angry boys, heartbroken men — make this a rich and rewarding world to get lost in for a few hours. So when are you going to read When You Break A Knuckle?

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