DW Wilson, Once You Break a Knuckle

Maybe I grew up in the wrong small town: maybe my parents moved me out to boarding school just in time: maybe I didn't understand the place where I lived.

In any case, D.W. Wilson's Once You Break a Knuckle depicts via linked short stories a manly, boys-into-manly-men, knucklehead small town in which I likely would have been beaten regularly. It's a British Columbia town, a Kootenays town, and the specific location matters a great deal, but not as much as you might expect if you think it's CanLit. Really, the positive reviews mentioning Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, are quite right to recognize the transferability of Wilson's material into the larger history of literary bafflement at the spectacle of what passes for masculine development.

And yet this is a book that stands apart from everything else in this line. The death in "Don't Touch the Ground," and that death's immersion in (and emergence from) systemic teenage violence? Horrifying, poetic, inadequate, predictable, impossible: it's a small story, scenes from a complicated life, and from this sketch you can imagine might grow almost any number of futures, none of them clean. I keep coming back to this story when I think about the book, even though there's nothing about it that justifies my reading it centrally, because its structure feels to me so representative of Wilson's approach to narrative sequence and to voice.

The collection is defined, really, by the persistent conflict between John and Will Crease across multiple stories, generational and man's man as it often is between father and son, is by turns funny and frightening, ridiculous and real. Steven Beattie was wrong, I think, to see Once You Break a Knuckle as something like a failed novel ("chapters in a novel searching for a through-line"), even if he tried to bury the insult behind other lines of praise, because the echoes and repetitions seemed to him muddying rather than illuminating the lives incompletely captured in these pages. For me, Wilson's seemingly casual returns to similar images, details, and dialogue work to remind me of how much work there is simply to being in the world, to continuing to be in the world. You think you only get so many chances to get something right, but in fact you get an infinite number of chances to screw things up, and those screw-ups will haunt you.

Hell of a book, Once You Break a Knuckle.


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