I have to agree with the editors’ foreword to The Loose Canon, a new literary review out of Montreal, that “all voices deserve a chance to be heard and celebrated.” And I also agree that the literary establishment, particularly in Canada, has been granted an almost tyrannical power to deem not only what is good and bad, but also to enforce their agenda on a reading public that doesn’t know any better.

A recent article in Quill & Quire bemoaned the flimsy status of literary journals in Canada, particularly given the recent cuts in arts funding. In other words, without the generosity of the government most of these journals will fold. Not an altogether bad thing, when all is said and done. Many of these insipid publications serve as the primary breeding ground for everything bad and unreadable in Canadian letters. The beauty, indeed the audacity of The Loose Canon is that it’s stepping into the fray without government funding and without the sanction of the literary establishment. The result? A vital, exciting forum where vision, passion, guts and honesty trump critical theory, politics, sentimentality and aesthetic preciousness.

This is not to suggest, as the editors, the father-and-son team of Zsolt and Zachary Alapi, intimate in the foreword, that “craft” isn’t a paramount concern of the international lineup of writers featured in The Loose Canon. Guts and gusto do outweigh aesthetics more often than not in these tales. But despite their gritty, dark contours, coarse diction and at times appallingly degenerate characters, most of the pieces succeed because of the subtle, unpretentious, at times poetic, but always honest attention paid to craft and to detail. One thing that unites the stories, whether they come from Britain, the U.S. or Canada, is a plain-spoken, direct mode of narration devoid of excess verbal baggage or false emotion. Though many of the stories fall under the “confessional narrative” tag – Dan Fante’s and Mark SaFranko’s certainly do – there’s enough variety of voice and approach to keep the reading fresh.

In Virginia Ashberry’s dark miniature “Chimpanzees,” which seems to turn on its head the kind of affluent domestic reality we encounter in Susan Minot’s short story collection Monkeys, we’re given little snatches of poetry like this: “Scraps of mactac with bright yellow sunflowers floating in a green grass sea clung to the sides of the hand-made step.” But later in this heartbreaking take on poverty and child neglect, we find a different kind of poetry, certainly not as bright or pleasant, yet all the more arresting for the stark reality it vividly conveys: “One lone potato in the crisper lay in a bed of dry brown onionskins. A yellow box of lard, open and half used, sat at the back of the bottom shelf. Tilley knew the milk carton on the top shelf was empty. She had finished it last night.” Ashberry, who has a habit of writing painful, unforgettable stories like “Chimpanzees,” should be better known in this country. Stripped of all pretense and ego, her work shines a laser beam into the lives and hearts of people existing on the darkest margins of society. I must say I had to put the journal down after I read this story, which packs more into its three pages than most novels.

I’ve always enjoyed Matthew Firth’s stories. Like Ashberry’s they are honest, unpretentious and superbly crafted. But Firth also possesses a wonderful sense of the absurd that is very much his own terrain, one that he fruitfully tilled in his collection Suburban Pornography. His startling story “Action,” which opens The Loose Canon, begins: “She masturbates with an action figure – a Spiderman about eight inches long, missing its arms.” Now I understand that not everyone will find Firth funny. And I don’t think he would care one way or the other. You won’t find a bigger outsider in Canadian letters, nor a more accurate diagnostician of the unwholesome side Canadian life. That he is irreverent more often than not should make him more, not less, appealing, for despite his risks he delivers stories that really make you pause, that make you stop laughing.

Mark SaFranko, the undisputed master of the bunch, brings us the sombre, funny and reflective tale of the writing life, “Sometimes You Just Don’t Want To Know”; and I’ll admit a bias toward SaFranko because I think he, along with Tony O’Neill (also featured in the journal), is one of the great “undiscovered” American writers of our time. If you haven’t read his two novels Lounge Lizard and Hating Olivia (soon to be released by Harper Perennial), this story is a good introduction to the polished sentences, the irony, the delicate conceits and jaw-punching bathos of his work. This is a typical piece of SaFranko magic, where the loftily poetic is always chastened by the pricks of life: “A feathery frost fluttered down over the earth, painting all things with an unreal silver sheen. It was beautiful in a melancholy way, but I was freezing my ass off.”

As mentioned, Tony O’Neill is another neglected American master (though he too has recently signed with Harper Perennial), and “Duane’s Stump,” a drug rehab tale, is typical of his exuberant, engulfing prose. Unlike some of the more reticent writers in the collection, O’Neill is capable of rousing flourishes like this one, describing a group of tattooed people at a beach: “A Bayeaux tapestry of fresh and fading ink was on display, a dizzying avalanche of images and words. Bloody, vivid sacred hearts, punctured with crowns of thorns and blazing crucifixes rising from the top ... burning dice, grinning demons, bleeding skulls, big titted pin up girls with devils tails and whips, the Virgin de Guadalupe, black teardrops, grim reapers, screaming Jesus’ with their eyes twisted up towards heaven, handguns.”

Other stories that stood out were Dan Fante’s (son of John Fante) grimy account of a stay in New York City, “Sin Will Find You Out,” and Londoner Heidi James’s punchy tale "The Sister"; but I must say there wasn’t a dud in the group. The Alapis really have something here, and if they maintain the current high quality of The Loose Canon – including the coruscating cover design by Richard Watts and Steve Hussy (the Murder Slim Press folks) – it will quickly establish a reputation as a must-read journal at a time when many have fallen by the wayside.

Edited by Zachary and Zsolt Alapi
Siren Song
110 pages

Salvatore Difalco is, among many things, senior writer for TORO and the author of Black Rabbit & Other Stories.