Barry Callaghan’s 1995 short story collection A Kiss is Still a Kiss is one of those books that starts out with extraordinary potential but then goes rapidly downhill with each successive piece. The stories here, often taking their names from song lyrics or titles, are unified by the reoccurring use of song, often chimed out by characters in a way that’s meant to elucidate broader themes or metaphors. But these gimmicks also speak to the overarching problem with the collection as a whole: these tales are meant to be read as gritty and hardscrabble but are often undermined by bursts of cheap sentimentality that ring out like a chintzy song sung out of hand.
The best story in the collection is obviously the first one, “Because Y is a Crooked Letter.” Here, Callaghan tells the tale of a privileged, artsy couple (he’s a poet; she’s a sculptor) who has their tony Toronto home broken into and ransacked. The violation is brutal and permanent: priceless artifacts from their lives together have been destroyed, and the couple tries to piece together why they were made victims in such a horrendous and random way. It’s a story about the meaning we infuse into our material objects and what happens when those objects are brutalized or destroyed. It’s a story that balances its metaphors quite well, even though it races to an improbable conclusion.
The rest of the stories are not as lucky. Callaghan is aiming for pathos in tale after tale, but he lacks the skill to avoid the puddles of cliché that stand in his path. He gives us drug addicts, a mother and son in mourning, a corrupt but lovable politician, gay men reaching out for connection – but cannot take these short story standards and turn them into something fresh. Too many of these pieces are overcome with their own nostalgia and sappiness, which come off as incongruous with the hard-edged plots that give the stories their structures. Even the titles themselves drip with syrup: “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven”, “Never’s Just the Echo of Forever”, “Mellow Yellow” and (I kid you not) “Buddies in Bad Times.” I’m sure a more intrepid reviewer than I could track down the songs where each of these titles originates and then comment on them, but I just didn’t care enough about the short stories themselves to do that.