Roger Groening, Knuckleball (Winnipeg: Self Published, 2015). Paperback, 229 pages, $21.00.
Roger Groening’s collection of short stories is wickedly funny. Funny enough to make one wonder if Roger is related to Matt Groening, the creator of Homer, Bart, and Marge. This isn’t so far-fetched given that the late Delbert Plett, in his magazine Preservings, proclaimed a link between Matt Groening’s people and Steinbach. The stories in Knuckleball are set in a community called Shannon Creek, named after a drainage ditch that runs parallel to Highway 23 and empties into the Red River near Morris, Manitoba. The stories reference other towns such as Altona, Morden, and Roland, but conveniently avoid mentioning Lowe Farm or Kane. That Shannon Creek is a Mennonite town is made clear on nearly every page with often devastating wit.
To call this a collection of linked stories would be an understatement. Woven, tangled, matted, these stories create an unruly portrait of a town in a fluid era encompassing the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, with echoes of more current times. Leonard (Leonard Groening in one story), a klutzy teenager who appears in the majority of the stories, at times seems to be the viewpoint character through whose eyes we are shown the town, but generally the narrative voice is more omniscient than a limited third person narrator would be. At times the narrative voice reminds me of Richard Brautigan’s writing from the ’60s and ’70s, though Groening writes with much longer sentences.
The collection opens with “Miss December,” in which wayward Uncle Hank shows up at a Christmas family gathering in a red sports car with the top down and a blonde from Las Vegas in the passenger seat. While Uncle Wilbert greets Hank with, “Arrived just in time, Hank. The Bible quiz is just starting. Still reading your Bible, Hank?”, Leonard is convinced Hank’s girlfriend is Miss December from the Playboy magazine he discovered in the Shannon Creek Co-op oil tank shed. The family welcomes the girlfriend, though there is some consternation among the women because the guest has not brought a salad. Leonard has his moment, though as must happen, his fantasy gets crushed.
Leonard’s fantasies get crushed a lot in these stories as he tries to get to first base with Patsy Giesbrecht, struggles to strike out Hermie Goertzen with his knuckleball, and fails to escape his sadistic teacher Henry Born. The pressures on a teenager in a small town where everyone knows everything about everyone are exacerbated by a religiosity that attributes every problem and anxiety one might have to a lack of faith. However, the stories are much more than tales of teenaged angst, both in the Low German sense and the psycho-philosophical sense. In most of the stories, the teenage turmoil is balanced with a parallel adult struggle. So the sadistic teacher Henry Born may lecture Leonard about lack of faith as the reason he doesn’t have what he wants, while at the same time his own level of personal satisfaction is frustratingly low because he hates teaching and his wife won’t let him play golf.
One of the more interesting threads running through these stories is Pastor Friesen. A seminary-trained pastor in a two-pastor community, Friesen is constantly fighting to keep his job. “The Cat that Saved the Church” begins this way:
Pastor Friesen was worried. The pastoral review was scheduled for six p.m. and his leadership position in the Shannon Creek Mennonite church was hanging by a thread. Peter Sawatsky had challenged his leadership again, this time over the delicate matter of stained glass windows. The word in the Shannon Creek cafe was that Friesen would need a miracle to survive.
Friesen is rather like an adult version of Leonard. Leonard may be a klutz in sports and in his social life, but he is a reader and a thinker with a love of literature. Friesen, too, is intellectual and given to liberal interpretations of the Bible, unlike his evangelical rival Pastor Rempel who serves up a comforting black and white gospel in his church. On top of that, Friesen’s son, Ron, is a stereotypical bad boy preacher’s son who has the skills of teenage success that Leonard doesn’t. But Ron, too, gets caught from time to time adding to the fragility of the thread his preacher father’s job hangs by.
The characters in these stories tend to live on the margins of the community in some way—characters who experience the self-righteous judgment of the community regularly. You have the poor farmers, the drinkers and gamblers, the adulterers, and the café owner who provides a refuge for the troubled souls from all layers of the community while being viewed with suspicion himself.
Groening’s stories are highly readable, and his writing style is mostly polished. A few passages consist of relentless declarative sentences that could have been varied somewhat, but overall the book is very well copy-edited and professionally laid out and designed. In the early stories in the collection, the narrative voice is rather condescending toward the characters and the community, but as the book progresses this condescension fades. One could say that the reader is taken from condescension to empathy and appreciation without being given any relief from Groening’s wicked wit.
Armin Wiebe’s latest book is Armin’s Shorts. His play The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz ran at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern, Saskatchewan in the summer of 2016.