Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize nominees: Cary Fagan

Read an excerpt from A Bird’s Eye

The $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the last of Canada’s major literary fiction awards to choose its 2013 winner, will do so on Nov. 20. Up for the prize are Lynn Coady, for Hellgoing, which has already won the Scotiabank Giller prize; Lisa Moore’s CaughtA Bird’s Eye by Cary FaganA Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam; and Krista Bridge’s The Eliot Girls.  In the lead-up to the awards ceremony, Maclean’s is sharing excerpts from all five shortlisted works, introduced by the writers’ thoughts on their literary influences:

Read comments and excerpts from fellow nominees:

Krista Bridge, The Eliot Girls
Lynn Coady, Hellgoing
Colin McAdam, A Beautiful Truth
Lisa Moore, Caught

“When I was in my late twenties, I became infatuated with Arthur Schnitzler. A Viennese Jewish doctor who died in 1931, Schnitzler is now best known for La Ronde, his merry-go-round of a play about sexual coupling. But it was his lesser-known fiction that captivated me.
Schnitzler’s melancholy works explore desire and sex, hope and disillusion. But what I particularly loved about them was their form; his books are very short, sometimes a mere hundred pages, and have both the concentration of the short story and the fullness of the novel. One of his story collections is even called
Little Novels (at least in English). It’s only now that I can see how I’ve tried to think of my own short stories as little novels, and that, in A Bird’s Eye, I hoped for both a lyrical intensity and the richness of a larger, engaging narrative.”


An excerpt from Cary Fagan’s A Bird’s Eye:

My room was the smallest in the house, hardly big enough for more than the bed. A small window overlooked the trash heap in the back garden. Kneeling, I could see my mother coming up from the cellar steps, hands black with coal dust. A smudge on her forehead darker than the birthmark. Kids taunted me because of her mark and reluctantly I had to defend her honour. I usually lost.

It was October 1938, and I was fourteen years old. The windowpane had frost at the edges. I traced my name with a dirty fingernail. From downstairs came the slam of a door. My mother made so much noise, I always knew where she was in the house. My father made almost none, a shadow with no more weight than a single inhalation of breath. Right now he was no doubt at the kitchen table, waiting for his breakfast.

“Benjamin!” My mother calling. “If you don’t come now, I throw your eggs in the garbage.”

I finished buttoning my shirt, glancing idly at the row of toys on the one shelf above the bed. Monkey. Fish. Lion tamer. Bear on a chain. Child riding on a crocodile. I had always owned them. When I was younger, my father had demonstrated them to me (not allowing me to wind them myself), but they hadn’t been touched for years. There was one, a mechanical bird, that he told me was supposed to be his finest creation. Like the others, it was made out of tin and other metals, but with eyes made of glass, dark eyes that looked as if they saw everything and nothing at the same time. It has the shape and colour of a crow but also something of the jay and swallow, an imaginary merging of types. Its wings, folded in repose against its body, were larger in proportion than an actual bird’s, as was its long and pointed beak that somehow looked as if it were smiling. Inside it was a clockwork timing mechanism that set the wings flapping for one minute. Then the wings would halt, stretched out in a gliding position, to start up again a minute later. During the glide, a rush of air was supposed to enter an open slit under the tail and turn a miniature paddlewheel inside, ratcheting up the spring again. My father’s idea was that the bird would stay up until the parts wore out, or it crashed into something, or the weather forced it down. As a child I had imagined it staying up for months and even years, flying over roofs and schoolyards and streetcar tracks and dance halls and dark alleys. And as it flew, my father told me, every so often its mouth would open and it would emit a screeching laugh. But it was the only one of his toys that he didn’t wind up for me, that he had never allowed to come to “life.” He was too afraid that it would drive itself into the ground, or hit a church steeple, or destroy itself in some other way. It was too beautiful to wreck, he said. Actually, as a young boy, I thought it was a little frightening, with those dark, fathomless eyes. Now, however, I hardly noticed it. I didn’t care about any of them, and the skill that my father once had meant nothing to me.

I hurried out of my room, slid down the banister, sprinted past the dim wallpaper curling at the bottom. My father was drinking his coffee and reading yesterday’s newspaper, which he had picked up somewhere. There was a headline about the chancellor of Germany and a photograph of a crowd in a square.

“Can I have the funnies?”

“After I read them,” he grunted.

My mother dropped our plates onto the table. “If they taste like rubber, I don’t care. Take some toast.”

“I want a cup of coffee.”

“You’re fourteen.”

“Give the boy some coffee.”

“Ah, he speaks! Almost never, but when he does, what words of wisdom spill out. You want coffee, Benjamin? Fine. And tonight you can have whisky. Now I have to go. The stall won’t open without me.” She wiped her hands on her apron as she pulled it off. “Benny, you make sure you go to school today. And Jacob, I am afraid to ask what you are going to do.”

“So don’t ask.”

“Tell me.”

“I’m going to read this newspaper.”

“Out of work three months.”

“You haven’t heard? I’m not the only one.”

“There is always work. A day here and there.”

“Not suitable work for a man of my talents.”

“You have no talents. I have been thinking. We can take in another boarder. It will be more work for me, of course. Benjamin, ask Mr. Speisman for more hours after school.”

“I already asked him. He said he has to cut back my hours.”

“More good news.”

“Hitler wants to kill us all,” my father said, rattling the paper.

“With your help,” said my mother, “we’ll starve before he has a chance.”

Copyright © Cary Fagan, 2013. Excerpt reproduced with the permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved.

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