Review: Armin’s Shorts, by Armin Wiebe

Armin Wiebe, Armin’s Shorts, (Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2015). Paperback, 252 pages, $19.00.

At times, Armin’s Shorts is a musical comedy that could make even your “grandmother sit up in her black trough coffin and laugh.” Yet the stories also offer a continuum between “reckless passion” and “matter of fact, practical urgency,” wherein Wiebe reaches deep into the muck of everyday life and imagination, and, at times, the unpleasantness hurts. This is life, and not just in fictional Mennonite Gutenthal. These stories have a broader appeal and relevance.

The book is divided into sections of short stories about a range of topics and locales, from the familiar, fictional Gutenthal in Wiebe’s previous works, to a series of adapted “Subarctic Stories”—tales of historical mythology set in the Canadian subarctic—and a series of “Olfert” stories that are largely surreal, fantastic, and apocalyptic. The “Olfert” stories are set in modern Winnipeg and take the reader to a new place in the wildly chaotic imagination of Armin Wiebe.

In “Mouse Lake,” the infamous, reappearing character Yasch and his pregnant girlfriend, Oata, have been invited to the cabin of Shups and Laups Leeven, at Mouse Lake. Yasch has unresolved romantic feelings for Shups and anticipates that the weekend will require him to “keep the tarp on the haystack.” Sexual tension is palpable when Shups invites Yasch for a private boat ride. He inquires why. “Fishing,” Shups says, “Anything wrong with a little fishing?” The scene on the boat is beautifully evoked by Wiebe’s subsequent description, “We look into each other’s eyes for a long time, and a tear seeps out of her eye, and I feel one leaking from mine, but we don’t look away until the last drop is squeezed out of what we had.” It is a striking, real moment.

In “Barn Dance,” Koadel Kehler engages in male bravado with his buddies when real life enters his world. Koadel is a witness to Gladys Giesebrecht giving birth to a child in a stubble field, and the subsequent night of activity is a riveting tale of human desperation. Koadel recognizes his limitations. What he is left with is still to be determined, but Koadel has left bravado behind. When he explains his absence the night before to his father, Koadel offers an enlightened response. He says, “I had to be alone for awhile so I could pray to God.” Wiebe demonstrates well the peculiar ways life has of humbling a person.

In “Flypaper,” Rosie, who is being abused, sees “the colors spiraled on the screen of her closed eyelids, and […] Abe taking off his belt, and commanding her to bend over the rumpled bed underneath the syrupy twist of yellow flypaper.” The image of the flypaper evokes the sense in which Rosie feels caught in the snare of seemingly futile circumstances.

In “Engel Bengel,” Sour Sarah Suderman explains the cause of her struggle to laugh. Sarah was born the day grandmother died. She observes, “maybe that is why I never laughed as a child, because from the day I was born I had been given to see where living in this world was leading.” When Pastor Funk advises Sarah that she would make a good wife for him because “a preacher needs to have a sombre wife,” Sarah is “so gruelich scared no scream got past my throat.” But Sarah is saved by Kjrahel Kehler. He makes her laugh, and she recognizes that “my only hope in the world was with Kjrayel Kehler himself.”

The recurring character of Beethoven Blatz also focusses on a form of salvation: the power of music. Blatz “broke free of stifling tradition” and yet he is troubled, “confusing fear and desire that barely allowed him to play the movement” that he so loved to play. The relationship between music, love, and fear is beautifully presented in the Blatz character.

Wiebe’s book ends with a poem, different in tone and style from his stories. Yet, there is similarity in its call for love, its realization of loss, and its hope in new growth: “a bouquet of oak sprouts among the ferns.”

Wiebe’s range as a writer is evident in this collection. He deftly reveals the foibles of Mennonite culture and human nature—the contradictions, the ignorance—but also the principled commitment, intelligence, imagination, and courage of characters navigating difficult circumstances. Themes of joy, hope, futility, oppression, laughter, and love are evident throughout, as characters try to counter stifling tradition. Of course, sometimes tradition isn’t stifling, but surprisingly sweet and precious.
Roger Groening is the author of the short story collection Knuckleball. An audio version of the collection, dramatized by Roger, will soon be on his website. He lives in Winnipeg.