The Obstacle Course


180 pages
ISBN 0-7780-1216-6
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by Douglas Ivison

Douglas Ivison is an assistant professor of English at Lakehead
University in Thunder Bay.


Richard Cumyn’s fourth collection of short fiction, The Obstacle
Course, includes some excellent, surprising stories. At their best,
these stories sneak up on the reader, providing insights one would never
have expected in their opening pages. Cumyn uses unexpected
juxtapositions and digressions to slowly reveal aspects of character and
situation, often to powerful effect. This narrative strategy is most
effective in the longer pieces; when it doesn’t work, it can leave the
story feeling aimless and unfocused.

The opening story, “The Resolutes Club,” is Cumyn at his best. As
this story moves from digression to digression, the reader gradually
assembles a picture of a tyrannical father and his impact on his son,
the story’s narrator. We are presented with both a powerful portrait
of a flawed marriage and a moving meditation on responsibility, aging,
and the need to let the past remain in the past. Similarly, “Lilac
House,” the longest story in the collection at nearly 60 pages,
utilizes a series of initially confusing digressions to take us from a
family picnic deep into the protagonist’s memory. Cumyn effectively
reflects the digressive way in which memory works, but doesn’t lose
control of his narrative, artfully connecting the seemingly unrelated
memories that constitute the story to its opening scene.

The shorter pieces don’t allow Cumyn the space for the digressive
style that makes “The Resolutes Club” and “Lilac House” so
successful. The one exception is “Explain Something to Me,” a
coming-out story that uses digressions and juxtapositions to avoid the
clichés of the genre.

Cumyn is a writer to watch, and his best stories are works to savour
and admire.


Cumyn, Richard., “The Obstacle Course,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 13, 2024,