After serving in the Navy, working as a bartender, line cook, dishwasher and technical writer, after an invitation to join a motorcycle club, after nearly having his writing career (before it ever really started) derailed by the anthrax scare of 2001, Craig Bernier can breathe a sigh of relief.
Bernier’s first book, the short-story collection “Your Life Idyllic” (Black Lawrence Press, $14.95) is finally in print. He will read from the book Nov. 8 at the East End Book Exchange in Bloomfield.
Bernier can laugh about the phone call that led to the publication of the book, the day when he learned he’d won the St. Lawrence Book Award for fiction and had no one to tell. He couldn’t reach anyone, family or friends, by phone. He had a dental appointment, but his regular dentist was off and the substitute didn’t care about his news. Almost two hours elapsed before he was able share his good fortune.
“It was a powerful lesson in meditation and just sitting in the moment and being quiet with the news,” Bernier, 43, of Wilkinsburg says. “Hearing this wonderful news I’d been trying to make happen for 15 years and having to be quiet with it was a lovely lesson for a writer, and it made me cognizant of how many people I had to thank.”
The stories in “Your Life Idyllic” are filled with similar incidents, moments of joy quashed by frustration and/or the failure to communicate. Bernier populates the stories with a diverse array of characters.
In “Just Enough Rope,” a factory worker hits his supervisor over the head with a fire extinguisher and ends up in a bar where Eminem is drinking. An uncle tries to keep the myth of Santa Claus alive for his nephew in the “The Chief.” A famed gambler down on his luck tries for one last big payday at the fabled Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in “Culvert at the Track.”
The characters and stories have earned Bernier comparisons to Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Jayne Anne Phillips. But when he first started to write, Bernier avoided realism in favor of tales about drug dealers and “ ‘Miami Vice’ knockoffs.” Then, a teacher told him to write about what he saw on the streets of his native Detroit.
“I just thought no one would want to read about that,” Bernier says. “They seemed all too grim or bleak, not necessarily hopeless, but there was nothing really around me that I thought was worthy of literature.”
In 1989, after graduating from high school, Bernier, like most of his friends frustrated by the lack of career options, enlisted in the military. He served with the Pacific Fleet of the U.S. Navy and is a veteran of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. After leaving the Navy, Bernier studied at Macomb Community College and Wayne State University, both in Detroit, and worked various part-time jobs. While he was working a construction gig, he got an offer from a co-worker to join the motorcycle club.
It wasn’t quite like being asked to join the Knights of Columbus or the Rotary.
“He thought I would make a good member,” Bernier says, who admits he considered the offer.
Then came the news he’d earned a Jacob Javits Fellowship, a long-shot just because of the circumstances. Bernier’s application ended up in a mailbag at a post office in Washington, D.C., with letters suspected of containing anthrax spores, delaying its arrival until just before the deadline.
“It turned out there was no anthrax in the bag,” Bernier says. “They rushed the application off, and it got there.”
The delay resulted in Bernier missing the deadlines for most university writing programs. He was resigned to plugging along at his day job while writing in his spare time.
Then came another phone call, one that came early in the morning while he was making the soup of the day at a restaurant. He immediately accepted the offer to study in the master’s of fine arts program at the University of Pittsburgh.
It’s a story that would fit in “Your Life Idyllic” if Bernier wasn’t writing fiction.
“When you deal in realism, or hyper-realism, if it’s good and it’s effective, people know (fiction) comes from someplace,” he says. “If it’s effective and efficient and it’s artful, they recognize it. They should recognize it.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.