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The Maladjusted by Derek Hayes
Thistledown Press 2011
Trade Paperback
203 pages
Fiction; Short Stories

The characters in Derek Hayes’ collection of sixteen short stories are true representatives of modern society in a western culture: neurotic, obsessive, manic depressive, paranoid, or just a little bit off. From the diagnosed mentally ill Mike who hibernates in his apartment, venturing out to go to the food mart or to collect other people’s discarded furniture (which, one time, he turned into a wall in the middle of his living room); to the immigrant teacher’s assistant who takes over disciplining the class; to Max who is sure that Chris is seducing his girlfriend away from him. From overweight and shy Melanie who develops a crush on the waiter at the Chinese restaurant; to engineering graduate Russell who can barely leave his room but is sent on holiday to Vietnam by his mum; to Alan who is obsessing over the hair growing on his girlfriend’s upper lip:

Yesterday evening my thoughts started to be more obsessive – I wanted to broach the subject, but didn’t because I’d hurt Carol’s feelings. I went back and forth in my head, rehearsing the conversation. She had no idea what was going on, but she could sense my anxiety. I grabbed her and kissed her on the lips to prove to myself that it was no big deal. I’d shaved assiduously that evening so as not to confuse my bristles with hers. I held her face, venturing my upper lip on hers, at first certain that I indeed did detect the wispy hairs, but when I pulled away I was less sure and wanted to kiss her again, but she pulled back. I wondered if she were tiring of me, but just for a second, because her moustache once again infiltrated my thoughts. [p.125]

While some of the characters were noticeably odd and diagnosable, what really appealed to me about these stories was how normal the people really were. Whether that’s a sign of “the way our society is going”, I very much doubt it; I think we’ve always been this way, or have for a long time, thus rendering the very word “normal” or “sane” useless. This isn’t a new debate, or question or theme, but Hayes presents so many different – and at times subtle – perspectives on what being mentally unbalanced – or mentally balanced – really is, that the question’s inherent ridiculousness becomes apparent. Maybe it is indicative of our times, and how alienating our society and urban lifestyle really is: how nuts we can go, and in what mundane ways. This has become an interesting topic for me since moving to Toronto six years ago.

I doubt very much that there isn’t a character here that every reader can relate to, in some way. Across sixteen stories that touch on everything from relationships to the decline of the small Ontario town, a vivid montage, or collage, of life and living comes into being. Two of the stories are about men living in Taiwan and Turkey, working as English teachers – right there I had something to relate to, especially the Taiwanese one which bore some resemblance to my time living in Japan as an English teacher (people coming from Australia, Canada, the UK and the U.S. – many of whom are oddballs on a good day – thrown together and with enhanced superiority complexes, leads to some interesting dynamics); but most of the stories are set in Ontario. I certainly enjoy reading stories set in the city where I currently live (Toronto), and I feel that I can pick up on an extra layer of nuance because of it (the stories feel and sound so very Canadian, and so very Torontonian), but that doesn’t mean someone else would feel alienated, not at all.

Each story is a character study, a slice or glimpse into a life (although two stories that come to mind take place over several decades), and as such are subtle explorations into the psyche. Characters and their neuroses are presented as true-to-life, honest and naked; absent is any kind of moralising or judging voice, which would have tarnished and diminished every character here. Hayes has a knack for honing in on how people tick, and illuminating those everyday, seemingly trivial moments in life that collect and build up to flesh out our lives.

Yet none of these characters are going through anything trivial. Our lives are the most important thing to us, and our delusions and neuroses are part of that. The impact of each of these stories on the reader will vary for each of us, often depending on how well we relate to the character studies and settings, so the stories that were strong for me might not be strong for others. They are all quite different and cover such a broad range of characters that I doubt you would struggle to connect with none of them. Some, like “The Revisionist”, were sad – I could picture Jim on the TTC so clearly, having ridden it with people like that (or who seem “like that” but how can you know, really?). My personal favourites are “The Runner”, “The Maladjusted”, “Maybe You Should Get Back There”, “Green Jerseys” and “The Lover”, though most of them I liked a great deal. They are each of them at times quirky, funny, sad and always insightful.

I just have to end this with a comment on the cover, which I love: it’s just perfect for the book and speaks so clearly does it not? The one ant who deviates from the assembly line – maladjusted or simply unique? Even the off-centre bullseye/pupil/ball – I’m not even sure what it is but it doesn’t even matter, it too is reflective (though also, from a graphic design point of view, artistically grounding the overall cover design). Bravo Jackie Forrie (cover designer)!

My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.


Other Reviews:

“THE MALADJUSTED is short stories like I love to read them. A collection focused around certain themes, heading in a clear direction and most important, it’s bold as hell. While Derek Hayes doesn’t hit the mark with every story, it’s not because he doesn’t try.” Dead End Follies

“Whether it’s due to mental illness, physical abnormality or just an overabundance of ego, Hayes has captured the idiosyncrasies perfectly. Each of the characters are crafted brilliantly and believably — a true accomplishment.” Gin & Rhetoric

“That Hayes could make me open to such existential pondering with seemingly straightforward stories […] is another testament to the strength of his writing.” The Book Mine Set

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4 comments to Review: The Maladjusted

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