From The Ambassador of What
Whenever I travel, if I can do it, if I can take the time, I’ll travel by train. Because I like to hang out in the lounge car. People tell me fantastic stories there. I think it’s because we figure we’ll never see each other again. For me, the Amtrak lounge car is like one big, rolling confessional.
– Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia
It’s possible to hear Spalding Gray’s voice saying those words in the back of your mind as you’re reading Adrian Michael Kelly’s story “Petty Theft,” which takes place on a VIA Rail passenger train travelling west across Ontario and into Alberta. The protagonist, an English student at Queen’s University, is travelling from Kingston, Ontario, to Calgary to work at his brother-in-law’s PetroCan filling station. During his trip, he encounters a succession of strangers who interact with him in various ways.
The story is narrated in the first person by the unnamed student, who reads “an old and forlorn copy of The Great Tradition” and generally reacts to his fellow passengers with unconcealed judgment and derision. The male passengers, that is: the two women who catch his eye receive a different kind of treatment, about which more in a moment.
Coming to any conclusions about the characters in the story is complicated by the fact that we encounter them only through the eyes and appraisal of the narrator, who gives the impression of not being the most trustworthy source for information. He presents as a supercilious elitist, though he wears a three-year-old tweed suit out of season and readily admits that he is not as highly educated as he makes himself out to be. He reads F.R. Leavis in part so that he doesn’t have to read the authors Leavis writes about in his most famous critical work: “Often that got me by in school, where you didn’t have to be well read. You just had to sound it.”
The narrator informs us that he has been given a conditional discharge for shoplifting a tube of acne cream – “Benzagel, high-end stuff,” indicating a degree of vanity in addition to a penchant for petty theft. His hauteur, we come to understand, is unearned (he is heading to Calgary to work a $9/hour job pumping gas), so when he disparages a fellow traveller for reading Robert Ludlum instead of F.R. Leavis, he comes across as arrogant and unpleasant.
He accompanies a man named Bob to the lounge car, where he is given a crash course in anarchistic antiestablishment principles. Bob is an erstwhile economics professor who walked away from the job because, as he told his students, “It’s all a crock of shit.” Bob goads the narrator about paying educators to tell him what to read, claiming he is complicit in his own indoctrination; the narrator responds in type: “I began a breathless homily. Most of it was stolen straight out of Leavis or what my profs had said.”
The second person the narrator talks with is a casually racist man named Joe who is clearly known to the railroad staff: after causing a commotion, the drunken Joe is kicked off the train by the conductor. The narrator makes a half-hearted attempt to assist but is told to stand down.
What prompts this show of bravado is Joe’s sexually explicit commentary about a fellow passenger, an older woman the narrator has been eyeing not entirely inconspicuously. When Joe asks what the narrator thinks of the woman, his response – “Think she’s a little rich for you” – is at once an insult to Joe and an attempt to establish some sort of masculine dominance, even in a situation where he clearly has none.
The narrator’s ego has been bruised because when the woman caught him sneaking a peek at her, she responded with a glance “as if to say, ‘Do you mind?’ ” To make matters worse, he later spies the woman in conversation with the man who was reading the Ludlum novel, prompting the narrator to assume that she is a “philistine.”
What we have in “Petty Theft” is various iterations of what is known these days as “toxic masculinity.” Bob and Joe are both drunks, though the former comes across as more moral and free thinking: he rails against “Bobo profs and higher ed as mind control” and quotes Weber and Marcuse. Joe is unrepentantly racist in the way he talks about his Indigenous girlfriend and objectifies the older woman in the train in the most crass and offensive manner.
And while the narrator might seem to be on the milder end of the scale, his final encounter with a woman who says her name is Ruby should make readers reconsider. He first notices Ruby when she boards the train: “She had high heel boots on, and torn fishnet stockings. A black tank top, and cleavage.” He proceeds to give the young woman a phony name and then demur when she asks him to loan her twenty dollars. Ruby, who says she is on the run from her foster parents, offers to exchange sex for the money.
“Usually what I say is I hid out in the washroom, but that isn’t true. I waited for her there.” The narrator’s admission, combined with his assertion that he usually lies about this, is freighted with guilt and shame. And here, we presume he is telling the truth – that the story is the equivalent of Spalding Gray’s “rolling confessional.” (Unless he is not and is trying to save face after being scammed by Ruby in one final ironic twist of the knife.)
The picture we are left with is of the narrator playing at being an alpha male of the kind that Joe appears to be but failing, not out of a more finely tuned moral compass, but out of a pervading sense of fear at getting caught. This is what he has taken away from his experience stealing acne cream: the potential shame at being collared, not any kind of moral qualm, is what keeps the narrator on the straight and narrow.
What Kelly allows us in “Petty Theft” is the ironic distance to see the narrator for what he is in the face of his own justifications and claims about himself. And the reality is a lot less upstanding than the tweed suit and the copy of F.R. Leavis might suggest.