A Review of Bruce Meyer's Toast Soldiers
by Linda Rogers van Krugel
Toast Soldiers, by Bruce Meyer (Crowsnest Books, Toronto, 2022)
Inside every writer, there is a child screaming to be heard as innocence slips through her/his blood-stained fingers. This is the blot in Bruce Meyer's new collection of short fiction, Toast Soldiers, the sacramental army he lines up on pages that rattle when the earth moves.
In Bette Midler's For the Boys, the singer-auteur set a war story inside the proscenium of magic realism, pulling her actors into the slow-motion of mental disturbance. Myer does something similar in the title story of Toast Soldiers ("sojers" in my family of infant cannibals), where the inertia of cycling history drags children into deadly games.
Allowing his long sentences to roll out like tanks testing terroir, he reveals deep connections and subplots in the banal landscape of a veteran's rest home, where retired gentlemen, aka old boys, return fire and ladies clutch their pearls in re-enactments of real-life battles as the survivors of infamy bicker over breakfast.
In these stories, the child/adult child, a ubiquitous boy narrator/navigator, struggles through the tangled underbrush of adult language and shibboleth to find his own plot. Land mines and rabbit snares reach up from Meyer's historic compost, while desecrated bread continues to tempt with its Panis Angelicus teasing the hunger for fast redemption.
"Oglevie," the story of a fighter beaten down by life, has the owner of the local bakery explaining why she has a doll house in the window, "'It's for dreams to live in,' she said very matter of factly," as generation after generation tastes the unconsecrated bait. Jung said happy children fall for this storyline until they don't.
Meyer's characters live in the imaginary and real worlds of children grappling with the language they imitate in their play. The game is wounding and healing as the storyteller in "Badlands" notices. "I shouldn't wish for the world to change because the world is God's work and little boys in houses of charity have no business arguing with providence because whatever happens is all in the plan."
Meyer's boys (aspects of one boy, maybe the one who died for our sins in the Judeo-Christian storyline) stay within the parameters drawn in Life magazine and Sunday School where their world was defined. They imitate the sanctified language of their elders, trying to avoid bombs that detonate when human nature stumbles over God's plan.
Everyone lives on dreams until the truth steps out from behind the curtain of elaborate syntax in the plots Meyer's children inhabit. Toby in "The Promised Land" plays soldier riding his bike through the Cold War to the end of his story, where mushroom clouds threaten acid rain, the dissolution of innocence.
Living between a rock and a rock (bomb and a bomb), Toby and his ilk, children of mothers with metal hair (curlers) and fathers messing with natural science live in the pages of a feldspar book, an artifact from the nuclear stone age. Their grief is palpable as they understand the game of soldiers is a trap that consumes their humanity.
In "Urineworts," child sadists, former choirboys, confront their cruelty when they observe "…the porcupine speaking to us from the depths where his body settled and he was saying he's become a hundred wonderful small lives and each was bright as the sun." Now that dead animal presents as a spiked virus, the result of man's inhumanity to man and the Earth itself, which puts us in mind of the Christos affirmation, "They thought they'd buried us, but we were seeds."
Who are the seeds, we wonder as we read on? Boys with the possibility of redemption, or their victims? Meyer seems to know but he is conflicted by the urge to hunt the beatitudes that speak in his sleep, some of them in the shape of constellations like Ursa Major, the incandescent bear who cradles the lost and frightened boy in "Warmth," a story vivid with magical thinking, which doesn't always work as child adults and adult children cohabit in common language and uncommon dreams.
Such a story is "Inches," where a child who has not yet learned to read letters and words is abandoned by his parents to interpret the dark shadows surrounding his mind, the mind of a child with adult urges and consequences, who is almost saved by an imaginary friend who tells him, "There are happy shadows and sad shadows, but it is light that makes a shadow. Never forget that."
How can a child be expected to navigate the shadows that make adulthood impossible, the smoke that swallows lives, as in "Candlemas," a confection of ritual fire and humans that burn like bacon when they are trapped in the syntax of innocence and experience.
These stories reveal the ethical dilemma of Bruce Meyer who writes like a spider spinning the web of his own concealment. The epiphanies that occur are moments of light magic extinguished by fear embroidered in anachronisms. Dickens was an ingenious storyteller too, his child narratives woven in shadows that struggled to meet the tender view, children disguised in adult syntax. Who is the child and who is the man, a reader might ask when confronted by the author's frustrations, perfectly expressed by the articulate girl/boy gourmand in "Macarons," another bakery stop calculated to make the child protagonist hungry for sugar, the fast hit, another bomb dropped right in the centre of Complacency in a suburb of Paris.
Meyer can't resist. Neither the narrator nor the reader is safe in the labyrinths where he plants explosives among the topiary, as the mind explodes in curious epiphanies. He, who dreams like a dog in frames where the much-maligned Ginger Rogers danced backwards, is the naked eye "I" of a camera that renders fragile glass negatives, also black and white.
For the child of longing, language is the bicycle of dreams, bakeries beyond his grasp. In this selection of stories that inform the heart as all stories are meant to, the toast soldiers lined up on the plate, ready to be dipped in the yolk of experience, are vulnerable "…the way a meteor feels when it vanishes along in the sky."
In the title story, Meyer writes, "I wept because someone knew that the rock or chunk of ice would arrive in this time and this place and as it disappeared it would startle the beholder, make him or her fear insignificant, leave him or her wondering if they'd ever get out of a place that contains all life, all light, and all time, and maybe write that one perfect song…"
In the penultimate narrative, "Thine is the Kingdom," a possibly apocryphal story of the crucifixion of an Australian infantryman at Vimy Ridge, where this reader's grandfather, the singer at the famous Christmas Armistice, was gassed days after sharing rations and a game of football with German soldiers. The metaphorical Father-and-Son meet at the barn door where one “Soldier of God, Queen, and Country” was allegedly impaled. This is where burnt toast in the breakfast liturgy reveals its horrific implications. The present desecrates the past as acts of heroism suffer translation into stories of moral corruption.
Meyer's innocent boys are trapped, not only in the language of barbarism but in war, the game of ultimate cruelty. It is relentless, the cycle that is never transformation of evil into good, but simply the repetitious loss of innocence that is our fate as fallen species.
Linda Rogers van Krugel is a past president of the League of Canadian Poets and the Federation of BC Writers. From 1 December 1988, she served as the second Poet Laureate of the City of Victoria.