Publisher: Oolichan Books; 1 edition (July 1999)
What Men Know About Women explores the unspoken complications men and women experience in their most intimate relationships. As the space between them ebbs and flows, Smith’s couples struggle to maintain a balance between love and alienation, understanding and confusion, tenderness and a fear of vulnerability. Spare and elegant, these stories are about the circumstances of everyday life, told with compassion.
Critical responses to What Men Know About Women:
“What Men Know About Women is a beautiful book of short stories, circling around the theme of desire and the relationship between father and son—a mixture of humour and pathos.”
–Thora Howell, National Post
“In this debut collection of six stories and five mini-fictions, poet and publisher Ron Smith explores the complexities of relationships between men and women. The six longer stories are thoughtful and reflective, mainly from the point of view of an older man looking back over his life, and contemplating his uncertain present and future. The five very short pieces, while sometimes poetic, add little substance, and the book would be stronger without them. Several stories are reminiscent of the late Andre Dubus, whose hard-edged collections, like Separate Flights and Finding a Girl in America, dealt with the mysteries of male-female communication, or lack thereof. In one of the strongest stories, “Things Not Yet Said,” a middle-aged man can’t find the words to tell his grounded and loving wife that he has been forced to take early retirement from the high school where he teaches music. “The Last Time We Talked” is the tale of 50-year-old who has committed himself to a detox centre, and contacts a friend he hasn’t seen for 16 years. Meanwhile, his friend has worse problems than he does, yet manages in his own way to handle them. What do men know about women? “Nothing. We know absolutely nothing,” are the opening lines of the novella-length title story, where four males ranging in age from 9 years old to mid-40s travel by car across the U.S. and Canada, meeting a variety of women, including an officious immigration official, a bar girl, wives, and loved ones. They prove conclusively that the opening lines are accurate. In this story Smith repeatedly alludes to writer Richard Ford as a role model: in many ways however, Smith is a better writer than Ford. His writing is clear and straightforward, uncomplicated by cleverness, unweighted by Ford’s pretentiousness.These are stories designed for the contemplative reader, and well worth the investment of time and intellect.”
–W.P. Kinsella, Quill and Quire, October, 1999
“Ron Smith, the author of three books of poetry and a play, has written a collection of short stories that explore the unspoken complexities men and women experience when they enter into an intimate relationship. Many of the characters are engaged in a struggle to maintain a balance between opposites: commitment and estrangement, insight and uncertainty, loving affection and fear of rejection. “Sometimes stories are a path to the heart,” the author writes at the end of the first of these deeply insightful stories, “other times they show us our place in the world.” By turns surreal, realistic, and lyrical, Smith’s stories are notable for their directness and economy of language. Ron Smith is a writer to watch”
–David E. Kemp, Canadian Book Review Annual, 2000
“A black and white portrait of a beautiful woman, her bedroom eyes averted, this cover come-on for Ron Smith’s What Men Know About Women hints that his collection of stories is about male-female relationships. “Sometimes,” he tells us directly, “stories are a path to the heart. Other times they show us our place in the world. Like dreaming eyes refusing the darkness of sleep.”There is much for the heart in this varied collection. All are about our place in the world….These stores are about people we know — man and wife married 50 years; old childless couples who measure their lives in draughts; parents who chaperone their children’s teams; children who learn everything they know about sex from dirty jokes; old friends talking in pubs; gardeners; teachers forced into retirement; men attending conferences, alone away from home. Indeed, my personal favorite stories are the two set on the edges of Vancouver Island….These stories explore our need to drop anchor, our longing to be rooted in the universe. In the title story, the narrator cites a Richard Ford character who says it was a mistake to put all his faith in women. This reference moves the question of desire to another level, to a desire for spiritual connection, to men seeing women as a gateway to the sacred. Desire, like the muse, appears in many guises. Traveling on perfume or music or drink. Arriving when eyes or hands meet, when energy is exchanged, when sparks fly, with an erection, a conversation, a narration, with all the things we do to keep the darkness at bay.
Smith has accepted the responsibility to be the memory of his place, the recorder of his generation….That these short stories are very literary adds to the pleasure they give. Besides Richard Ford, swigs of T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Robert Kroetsch, Raymond Carver, Hemingway, masters of 20th century literature in English, flavor these brews, connecting the reader, the familiar characters and the local settings to the literature of other places. Drinking from the keg of a larger culture, connected to the vast sea of humanity whose tides breathe with the moon.
When I close the cover again, the model morphs into Greta Garbo. I want to be alone. Alone with this book, making myself at home. My second wish? I’ll have another one of those. Please.
–J. M. Bridgeman, January Magazine, 2000
“I open a book with a title like What Men Know About Women with some trepidation.…But as I ease myself into the next of Ron Smith’s stories, and then begin to anticipate the next, and then positively look forward to the next, my fears ebb. Smith’s eleven stories are much more than meditations on what men may or may not know about women. Certainly, the complications men experience in relating to women is a theme running throughout. But Smith’s characters struggle with the whole gamut of what makes us human, revealing the depth and complexity resigning in the banality of our everyday lives, and in the inevitable and fearsome tides of our own mortality.”
–Colette Stoeber, Word, Toronto, 2000.
“In John Grisham novels and video games, men are still supposed to be heroes saving damsels from distress. In movies they save planets and galaxies. By contrast, a man who tries to save his soul by pursuing inner truths is anti-heroic. Male narrators in Ron Smith’s What Men Know About Women (Oolichan $15.95), for example, mostly share awkward insights that we assume are autobiographical in origin, exposing and exploring the fragility of their egos. They do so in a style akin to talking to themselves, making us privy to their most private thoughts. “Hold me,” confides one narrator. “I am not ready to be old.” His wife’s affection terrifies him. “I’m in love with a woman with whom I can’t speak,” he tells us.
One wonders if the storyteller is more capable of being honest with readers than with people around him. Smith exposes a myriad of conscientious conflicts that are universal struggles for compromise. Put simply, it is difficult to behave decently and to be scrupulously honest.
With several references to Richard Ford’s fiction, Smith’s title story recalls a man’s journey to his daughter’s soccer tournament in the Twin Cities. His wife has flown ahead with his daughter while he drives to Minneapolis with their younger son. They are accompanied by another man, Gus, who has a crude but relatively conventional view of sexuality. Hoping to get closer to his 11-year-old son, the father/narrator closely monitors the fluctuating dynamics of his family life and the mysteries of gender differences. He and his wife share an unexpectedly gratifying close encounter in a motel room; later Gus tells a ribald joke in a cafe. “I have a tendency to put a reverse spin on events,” he says, “to see life darker than it is.” But by recalling hundreds of details from this fractured family adventure, the narrator celebrates the fascinating, irritating and unending complexity of so-called normality. The light at the end of the introspective tunnel is this man’s marital relationship. The title story ends with the narrator next to his partner in bed, unable to sleep, inarticulate but deeply grateful and respectful. “The point is, I don’t know why most people, let alone women, do what they do,” he confides. “This is something I’d like to talk over with Jean. Instead I lie there in the dark and try to harmonize my breathing with hers.”
These stories are not urbane advertisements for the writer’s cleverness. They are private reflections, mature and intimate, from a man who struggles to be a decent father and husband. As such, they are essentially moralistic explorations, critical-minded but not cynical, beyond the realm of biscotti literati. Ron Smith is concerned with personal truth for the sake of redemption; it’s a safe bet he won’t achieve flavour of the week status.”
–Alan Twigg / BCBW SUMMER 1999