Alexis, André: Pastoral

Courtesy of Coach House Press

Courtesy of Coach House PressPastoral

André Alexis
Coach House Books, 2014
Softcover, 162 pages

As befits an homage to its literary namesake, André Alexis’s new novel, Pastoral, is replete with shepherds and sheep of all sorts, unfurls in idyllic countryside and is suffused with gently probing meditations upon life, love and death. It is, however, a very modern reinvention of that ancient form wherein country life proves to be anything but simple, nature is a force to be reckoned with, and the sheep bear watching.  It is, as well, an intensely Canadian novel, quietly unassuming yet deeply provocative, as it wrestles with the metaphysics of a landscape as immense as ours,  and the correct relationship between religion, the divine and the land.  Even before the cover was cracked, and with my previous experience of Alexis’s deceptively simple yet penetrating writing in his novel Childhood in mind, it seemed a perfect marriage of form, function and style. It did not disappoint.

Father Christopher Pennant, is, like other of Alexis’s characters, immediately likeable. Ernest, humble, thoughtful and uncertain, a city boy, Ottawa bred and raised, he had dared to hope that his first parish might be located in a smallish city like Peterborough or Cambridge.  It is with some dismay and trepidation, therefore, that he learns he will begin his vocation as a priest in the small town of Barrow, in Lambton County, Ontario, a fictional hamlet with a population of 1100.  Hopeful, however, that he can prove to be an adequate shepherd to this somewhat alien flock, he sets out with what he believes is an open mind, determined to do his best.  Inevitably, if innocently, his ideas of what life in Barrow will entail are coloured by the romantic condescension of the urbanite.  In short, he believes life will be “pastoral,” in the traditional literary sense of that word — simpler, purer, more straightforward. As Alexis succinctly explains,

That this was not true he learned almost at once.

Father Pennant’s new country life is  immediately complicated by the presence of Lowther Williams, a sort of cook and all round handyman, inherited  from his predecessor along with the rectory, whose polymathic proclivities include fine cuisine, the natural world, and large chunks of the English literary canon and who firmly believes that, as a result of a family curse, he will die at age 63. Convinced the day is imminent, the 62-year-old Lowther realizes that it is Father Pennant who will preside at his funeral, and wishing to be sure the priest is the right man for the job, he, with the help of his wealthy, inventor friend Heath Lambert, devises a series of fabricated “miracles” designed to plumb the new priest’s religious sensibilities. Whether all of Father Pennant’s miraculous encounters are the results of Lowther’s machinations, however, remains a debatable point.

Further complicating Father Pennant’s new existence is the plight of Elizabeth , a young parishioner engaged to be married to Robbie Meyers. Elizabeth has just discovered that Robbie, an idealist, it seems, in matters of the heart, has resumed a relationship with a former lover, and, apparently, has no intention of giving up either woman. In the end, it is the women who find an unconventional solution to this unconventional impasse. In addition, the beleaguered young priest discovers that, far from a refuge whose calm simplicity will clarify and reinforce his faith, the countryside is a powerful presence in its own right, and his confrontation with the energy immanent in the Canadian landscape provokes a relapse of doubt which he had hoped he had put behind him in his seminary days.

The story follows the gradual resolution (or not) of these issues of love, life and death, with much intervening (and entertaining) hilarity, mystery, and metaphysical inquiry, unfolding over the approximately six months, from April ’til October, of Father Pennant’s stay in Barrow.

That Father Pennant’s adventures will be fabulous (in its original sense of fable-like) is apparent almost immediately. The peculiar “place out of time,” eternal and unchanging nature of Barrow is established by the fact that its population has been exactly 1100 people for twenty years. Alexis is careful to note that Father Pennant is immediately “enchanted” by the countryside. The sheep,  as well, so necessary for a pastoral, are artfully well-spoken.

The name “Barrow,”  trails noteworthy connotation — the agricultural sense of a castrated pig, but also the sense of ancient hills, and mounds constructed over the bones of the dead.  As well, the hamlet is the home of three “mysteries.”  The first is Barrow Mansion, said to be haunted by the ghosts of two members of Barrow’s founding family, a father and son both murdered by their respective spouses. Barrow Day, the second mystery, is a yearly communal bacchanal, a sort of conflation of ancient May Day rites, the Day of the Dead celebrations, and Halloween, with Kafka-esque undertones, celebrated every June 15, and which involves much public drunkenness, occasional nudity, and a little water-walking.  The third, and most powerful mystery is the “Regina,” the headwaters of the Thames River, a

vein of glass-clear fresh water that sprang from the ground, ran for six feet and returned underground.

and which

ran so fast and constant, it was as if it did not run at all, [appearing] like a solid section of crystal.

Issuing from a vulva-shaped cleft in the earth and suffused with libidinal associations, the Regina stuns Father Pennant with its beauty and is clearly a well-spring of the mystical life force, nature’s spiritual font. By dipping his hand in its waters, the young priest makes contact with primordial natural energies.

This novel is triumphantly and exuberantly Canadian on many levels. Firstly, it is unapologetically and unmistakeably situated in Canada — Lambton County, in rural southwestern Ontario, is a very real place.  Petrolia, Oil Springs, Sarnia and Ottawa make guest appearances or receive honourable mentions. It is also quiet, self-effacing, gentle and polite — qualities which should never be mistaken for shallow, simple or unsophisticated, as Father Pennant soon comes to understand.  The drop-dead gorgeous and beautifully apt cover illustration is a photo of a painting by Nova Scotian artist Lindee Climo, entitled The Lady Sheep, gleaned from the Dufferin County Museum and Archives. Kudos to Coach House Press for so successfully mining the potential of the book cover as an integral part of  literary art. Anton Piatigorsky, a Canadian writer whose work addresses many of the questions raised in Pastoral, is also referenced. Most significantly, though, Alexis’s story addresses, deliberately and directly, the great Canadian metaphysical dilemma:  what to make of nature on the scale of the Canadian landscape, its undeniable immensity and power, and, yes, enchantment, and how to integrate it into one’s world view, particularly if one’s world view is Christian, with its attendant assumptions of dominion over nature.

As Don McKay has discussed is his fascinating essay, “Great Flint Singing:  Reflections on Canadian Nature Poetries,” in The Shell of the Tortoise,  there is a power, a “pristine other” in the natural world which exists beyond the realm of time, reason or language, terrifying in its uncontrollable and unfathomable otherness, but which resonates deeply within our animal selves.  Muted by centuries of European civilization, weak emanations of this power were the catnip of the Wordsworthian Romantics, whose ideals shaped the sensibilities of so many of the colonial immigrants to Canada.  Arriving as they did steeped in Romantic notions of Nature the mild and nurturing mother, source of comfort, and inspiration for faith, the immense, immutable beauty, and often fatal reality of the Canadian wilderness demanded a radical reordering of their understanding of the divine.  Some identified the energies as menacing and evil, satanic in their provenance, and sought only to push Nature back with advancing civilization, Christian missionaries prominent amongst these front line forces. The careless, foolish, or naive did not survive. Others were utterly seduced, entranced, enchanted, some to the point of madness.  In any case, the attempt to come to terms with Nature on a Canadian scale has been a longstanding Romantic dilemma, and a persistent thread in our literature, one mirrored with much thoughtful humour in Father Pennant’s adventures in Barrow.

Alexis states explicitly that Father Pennant has become disenchanted with cities, Ottawa in particular, as lonely and oppressive, and had come to feel (most Romantically) “that any place that covered the earth with tar and concrete was a place where [God's] presence was bound to be muted.” Further, and despite warnings from the town curmudgeon, Tomasine Humble, that he would be wise to confine himself to matters of the soul, he hopes that his close study of the southern Ontario countryside, and its flora and fauna, will show him a “way back to the feeling of closeness with God, a way back to the fount of his own spirituality.” As readers soon see, he gets far more than he bargained for, falling under Nature’s spell almost immediately, and discovering, at the Regina, the fount of a force which he intuits may predate, supercede and encompass that of his God. As he struggles to ascertain the nature of this force (sanctified or evil?) and a correct relationship: Nature within God, or God within Nature, and deal with the implications of any rearrangement, he comes to understand that the more sensitive one is to the natural world, the less need one has for God. Understandably reluctant to give up on the idea of heaven, however, he finds himself one day (rather incongruously) imploring a talking sheep (which, to be fair, he assumes is another of Lowther’s shenanigans) to “teach [him] to be satisfied with the world and everything that’s in it.”

There are, in addition, innumerable sly references to Romantic precedents, in particular Wordsworth and Hardy, an added pleasure if one, like myself, enjoys a literary treasure hunt.  Heath Lambert, Lowther’s  friend, has a name which brings to mind Hardy’s Egdon Heath, that “great inviolate place,” of pagan energies (and barrows).  Pastoral seems to owe a particular debt to Hardy’s novel, The Return of the Native, which also features a  love-triangle, an examination of man’s place in nature, and a character named Thomasin, played out against the backdrop of the heath.  Wordsworth’s father’s employer (the Earl of Lonsdale) was named James Lowther, Heath sends Lowther a postcard while on a trip through Cumbria, in Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District, which is also, it turns out, Robbie Meyer’s ancestral home.  Cartmel Priory, featured in Wordsworth’s poem “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peel Castle”, is also referenced as is St. Mary’s — both an island in Windemere Lake, favoured by Wordsworth, and the name of Barrow’s church.

As the talking sheep indicates, Alexis’ touch is both playful and profound. The land is often depicted as incarnate, a stream described as “a strand of clear muscle.” Observing it, Father Pennant feels he could lift “the brook out of its channel, as he would ligaments and fascia from an animal he had dissected.”  The landscape watches its inhabitants and often expressing its moods through weather, as on one particularly blustery day when a

succession of black clouds crawled above Barrow [and] small things and bits of paper were taken into the air, held, then tossed, as if Lambton County were sullenly looking for something it had lost.

The author himself makes a cameo appearance as St. Alexis (a beggar with a book) one of the four obscure saints (Abbo, Alexis, Zenobius and Zeno) depicted in the Barrow church’s stained glass work, referencing the Greek letters alpha (Α)  and omega (Ω) a Christian appellation for God, but also suggesting that Barrow’s cosmology is all-encompassing. As Alexis notes, “there was something about these little known saints that suggested the great range of sanctity.”  It is also probably worth noting that Alexis makes a point of stating that the nave of the little church was “barely deep enough to accommodate the font”.

In typical low-key Canadian fashion, there are no grand epiphanies here, no absolute truths or certainties. Things work themselves out to varying degrees of satisfaction, and life goes on. There are, however, the most beautiful final lines that I have yet to encounter in Canadian fiction, ones that rival Fitzgerald’s boats and Crummey’s whale, and so I leave you with this:

As he walked into Barrow, somewhere around seven o’clock, evening was in the early stages of suffusion. The world was not yet dark. It was beautiful: a hint of winter in the air, the lights of the town turned on — one by one, it seemed — as its inhabitants, each in his or her own time, became aware of the coming darkness.

in the hopes that you will concur that a story worthy of such an ending must be very worthwhile indeed.

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Nasrallah, Dimitri: Niko

Dimitri Nasrallah
Vehicule Press, 2011
Softcover, 235 pages

Niko, the second in our Argo Bookstore, Montreal series, could not be more different from Peter Dubé’s The City’s Gates. Whereas Dube’s writing is atmospheric, esoteric, and darkly surreal, Niko is a linear narrative told with straightforward and transparent simplicity. Each are memorable in their own way.

Six-year-old Nakhle Karam, Niko for short,  is anxiously awaiting the birth of a sibling, hoping against hope for a younger brother, but willing to be happy with a sister. Life as an only child has become irksome since the violence of the Lebanese civil war has rendered outside play with friends in his Beirut neighbourhood impossibly dangerous.  Granted, the extra attention he receives from his father Antoine, also more or less confined to the family apartment after his camera shop was destroyed in a bomb blast, is a bonus, but overall Niko’s horizons have narrowed and ennui has set in. The eventual resumption of school routines  is, therefore, for Niko, a very welcome development. It is a cruel irony that his first day back, which began with such pride and optimism, ends in utter catastrophe — his expectant mother killed by a bomb blast — and events set in motion that will define and utterly reshape his life and that of his father.

With an already impossible life in a bombed out apartment deteriorating rapidly, the danger of their situation becoming increasingly untenable, and the future of his young son foremost in his mind, Antoine makes the critical decision to leave.  Opportunities to flee are limited and transient, and when an opening presents itself, Antoine must act quickly, with little time for planning.  Within twenty-four hours, taking only what they can carry, Antoine and Niko are sleeping under the stars aboard a ferry bound for Cyprus, enacting  a leap of faith into the world and an unknown future, the flashes of gunfire and “fiery orange balls of smoke” over the city of Jounieh receding into the dark “like a bad dream.”

What follows is a story of what it is to be adrift in the world, to lose one life, to pay the cost of finding another, and the capacity and limits of human adaptability.

Antoine is an extraordinary, ordinary man: kind, affectionate, thoughtful, honest, humble and hardworking, and able, under tremendous strain, to keep his wits about him.  While it is possible, of course, that his fate and that of his son might have spiraled downwards more quickly if he had not possessed these very admirable traits, in the end they seem to do him little good. Faced with a series of impossible situations, in which there seem to be no correct choices of action, or, at least, no way in which to ascertain them, Antoine’s quest to keep family together is defeated in a heartbreakingly short time, and he is forced to send a very young Niko, alone, on a plane to Montreal, Canada, to live with a little-known sister-in-law Yvonne and her considerably older husband Sami. It is an act of desperation, a seed sent out on wind currents in the hopes that something might survive. It will take nearly twelve years for them to be physically reunited and the father eighteen-year-old Niko finds in Valparaiso, Chile is a shadow of the man he last saw at the departure gates of the Athens airport.

My ancestral myth of immigration had its origins in Ireland and England of the 1800′s, and our collective family memory of this time is lost — replaced by new myths of adventure and survival as pioneers in what is now central Ontario.  I suspect, though, that the stories told of that diaspora were also of adventure, of quick wits, and intrepid survival.  The nature of these stories suggests that those with wit and resilience, and the courage to believe in the beneficence of fate, will find a “happily ever after.”  This is a youthful outlook, and probably a necessary one. Without it, who would ever have the strength to go?  The essential components of the myth are closely guarded — tied, inextricably, to our sense of identity as hardy survivors, a source of pride, and, a perhaps more dimly perceived talisman against what might come.

Conversely, amongst those who have left a homeland under duress, there is a competing myth, the auld lang syne of what was lost — ancient blood ties, traditions, land, (the Ireland of my imagination) — the true home. In Valparaiso, Chile, the city in which Antoine’s quest to reunite with Niko ends, there is a small, expatriate Arab community. The bonds which the second generations share are linked to a land they have never visited, but which lives in their imagination as the enchanted kingdom, the fairytale home. However, as one leader of this group explains it,

many of them prefer it that way. To visit the lands to which they belong at this point would ultimately disappoint them, as they would have to take down the elaborate portraits of villages they’ve conjured from their parents’ or grandparents’ stories and replace them with a drab and conflicted reality

I bring up these points in an attempt to elucidate the overall effect of this novel, which, in defiance of its superficial simplicity, carries a persistent, though ill-defined, rumble of disquiet. The story, it turns out, has a significant undertow. The source of this unease seems most closely linked to the ways in which the simple story subverts the essential components of our mythologies.  The reality of Antoine and Niko’s situation, and its outcome, bear the same relationship to our myths of diasporic adventure as the real “drab and conflicted” hometowns do to the villages of the expatriots’ imaginations. And, in the end, perhaps we, also, would prefer not to know.

Antoine, measured by my family standards of heroism, would seem to have all the right stuff.  In the midst of extremity and sorrow, he is still bold, resilient, resourceful, persistent, courageous, and honest, able to act quickly when necessary, and always focused on his son’s best interests, and the goal of preserving the family. His decisions always seem to be the best that can be made under the circumstances.  He never loses his humanity. Yet he cannot succeed. He seems to be stuck in the wrong story.  Fate stubbornly refuses to cooperate; the narrative veers  from the prescribed arc. Persistent in his attempts to find his way back to his son, he finds passage from North Africa working on a freighter bound for South America, only to be shipwrecked, and nearly drowned. Surviving by clinging to a piece of ladder from the ship, he is comatose when finally rescued, and as a result of the ordeal, loses the memory of his former life. Thus, all is lost, and at this point, little gained. Myth is eroded, and with it, identity and confidence.  With the exception of First Nations peoples, we North Americans have all, in our family history, a relatively recent story of immigration.  Embedded somewhere within it is the (unexamined?) assumption that our ancestors succeeded because they had the right stuff.  That’s the story.  And, it necessarily follows, we also carry in our genes what we need to face the future with confidence.  Antoine and Niko’s experience attacks this sustaining myth, suggesting that adherence to heroic ideals will have little bearing on outcomes, and that, in fact, life is not a story, but random, disinterested, and quixotic.

In the end, Antoine, failed in his quest to rebuild his old life in a new country, and to keep his family together.  And yet, in a configuration he could never have imagined, he has provided Niko with a new life and a new story.  Nearly drowning himself, he has taught his son to swim, and it is Niko who manages to effect an eventual reunion with his father. From a multi-generational perspective, fate has shown itself to be unpredictable and exacting, yes, but, ultimately, humane.

Another significant triumph of Nasrallah’s deceptively transparent writing is the power with which the utter isolation of displacement, and of what it means to wander amongst people with whom one has no standing and no history, is communicated. In his travels, Antoine meets a few scoundrels, and at least one saint — on average, human behaviour is neither utterly despicable nor overly praiseworthy, but the story is haunted by his loneliness,  the loneliness of an outsider whose worth cannot be known, and, therefore, has no currency.  The reader, who has come to know Antoine well, feels the weight of the injustice, and, thus, comes to better understand some of what it is that Antoine has left behind.

The ultimate tension in this story, as in other recent stories exploring the immigrant experience (David Bezmozgis’ The Free World, Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13) is the conflict between what is lost and what is gained, between personal authenticity and adaptability, and the weight of the decision, to stay or to go.  Despite this rather lengthy analysis, I still find myself compelled to re-examine each of Antoine’s decisions, each made in extremis, and wonder, which one was the mistake, the failure of wit and resourcefulness which precluded a happy ever after. Old myths are hard to shed. But, as Antoine’s story illustrates, sometimes it is not the decisions, but the world in which they had to be made that is mistaken, and as Sami Malik, Yvonne’s husband, and Niko’s stepfather, of sorts, notes, in the closing passage of the book,

This is why people are designed to carry mistakes, and this is why people should keep a room in their souls for what they might have done differently.


Further discussion from Literary Press Group of Canada (including a Q & A with the author)

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Dubé, Peter: The City’s Gates

Courtesy of Cormorant Books

Courtesy of Cormorant Books

Dubé, Peter
The City’s Gates
Cormorant Books, 2012
Paperback, 327 pages

Review by:  Kerry Riley

The first in a series inspired by a summer pilgrimage to Montreal’s Argo Bookshop to explore new Canadian fiction from a Montreal perspective.

It is late April, and the city of Montreal is gearing up to host the International Economic Conference in August.  The conference, which will bring a cabal of the world’s most privileged and powerful elite together to devise stratagems which will impact the material well-being of millions, is just the sort of polarizing event that tends to throw a society’s fault lines into high relief.  The  weeks pass, and the tension grows, as those invested in the success of the conference (lets call them the international corporatocracy) and those opposed to its ideologies (let’s call them the 99%) prepare for a showdown.

Enter Lee, a young post graduate loner with a degree combining elements of psychology, philosophy and statistics, and whose job, up until a few weeks prior, when he was laid off, involved ill-defined analysis of big data, at the shadowy, and also ill-defined “Centre.” Apparently, he was quite good at it.  Good enough, in any case, to be recalled by the vaguely sinister Director of the Centre, and offered a special portfolio, directly connected to the looming Economic Conference.  The Centre, which seems to specialize in knowing things, and is, one surmises, involved in some manner with conference security, has noted an outbreak of curious, anomalous social behaviour whose nature has alarmed the powers that be. In several isolated incidents, perfectly circumspect, even straight-laced, individuals,  experience attacks of what can only be described as radical truth-telling,  in which the “boundaries of social discretion” collapse, a development which the converging economic powers view as highly worrisome at best. Emergent viruses and new designer drugs have been considered as possible causes, but so far, efforts to pinpoint the exact source of the phenomenon have proved fruitless.  Although Lee’s self-described talent is for detecting subtle patterns in rivers of random data, and he has adamantly expressed his preference for working with data, not people, the Director insists that he is the man needed to take to the streets in search of answers.  Economic expediency dictates that Lee accept the offer, albeit reluctantly.

Lee’s story is, quite literally, over before it begins, as the reader is informed at the very outset that what they are about to read is “a transcription of a series of documents found during the course of a police investigation,” amongst the charred aftermath of a large, suspicious fire in a mixed residential/commercial building in the city. The documents include Lee’s journal entries, spanning several months preceding the conference, various magazine and newspaper clippings, mostly to do with the conference, photos, memos, and other minutiae, which have been redacted (albeit minimally) by the “authorities,” prior to their publication. There is no mention of Lee’s ultimate fate, which remains a mystery.

Painfully antisocial, Lee seems particularly unsuited to a life of espionage and uncertain as to how to proceed.  Early attempts, documented in his journal entries, are random and mostly futile, his auditing of CARP, (citizens against rapacious profiteering) an activist group gearing up for protest at the conference, seemingly going nowhere. A break comes, however, when he meets Roomie (Rumi?) a veteran of the streets with connections to the anti-corporate resistance and other darker denizens of the Montreal demimonde. What follows is the tale of Lee’s adventures as he attempts to infiltrate the city’s myriad subcultures, in search of clues as to the source of the “disturbances.” Acting on a tip from Roomie, he eventually befriends (if that is the correct word) the fascinating Mals, acquaintances who meet at the Ancient Ocean, a bar distinguished by a huge aquarium, and subdued blue lighting. Membership in the Mals involves mannered, even courtly, social interactions, a highly stylized wardrobe,  exquisite attention to personal grooming, and, perhaps most importantly, a mutually agreed upon denial of their mundane daytime existences.

Lee’s efforts, and reports thereof, seem, initially, simply bumbling and hapless, but, as the story progresses, readers have increasing reason to regard Lee’s testimony with ambivalence.  As his investigations take him deeper into the city’s netherworld, his accounts become increasingly surreal. An introduction to a new drug, “windowpane” via a member of the Mals, seems to precipitate a crisis, and the reader learns that he has a history of drug use, and dealing, his own tag (or demonic sigil) … and of fires.  It becomes increasingly difficult to discern if subsequent journal entries are a record of actual experiences, or of a disintegrating mind. Certainly, all the hallmarks of mania, possibly addiction,  and a downward spiraling mental state are there — Lee has not been answering his phone, has been roaming the streets after dark, his personal hygiene is suffering, and he feels increasingly isolated, even in places like the coffee shop, where he had previously been comfortable. He comes to suspect Roomie of covertly drugging him, partly as a result of a revelatory dream.

Our last word from Lee is his articulation of an urge to light a fire. And so, the story comes full circle.

To deal adequately with this novel, it seems necessary to consider mood and narrative separately.  The storyline begins in intrigue and fascination, but ends in some confusion and vagueness.  Significant story elements are abandoned along the way, and the approaching conference, whose immanence has maintained tension in a quite satisfying way throughout, comes and goes without the expected climax, Lee participating only peripherally, and the Centre and its concerns receding into the background.  Other reviewers have noted similar issues. Lee’s possibly delusional journal entries continue for a few days past the conference, and then simply stop, and, while this has been accounted for in the original frame of the novel, it is still troubling for a reader in search of some sort of conclusion or understanding.  Of course, one can make the argument that the collapse of order in the narrative simply mirrors Lee’s increasing irrationality, and that in a novel that touches on the futility of a search for meaning in the infinite chaos of existence (more on this later) it is unfair to expect neat closure. One can, one does, and one is still dissatisfied.

In the matter of mood, however, Dubé is masterful. The presiding atmosphere is that of a fever dream, intense, dystopic, and disjointed, with an overarching anxiety, amplified by the growing tension associated with the upcoming conference and attendant clash of ideologies.  To delve into this novel is to step into the textual equivalent of a surrealist canvas, the sense of distortion, of looming presence, lurking menace, of disaffectation, reminiscent of Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans or, perhaps, The Temptation of St. Anthony. Dubé conjures up a city shrouded in a claustrophobic and paranoid miasma, out of which materialize, from time to time, startling images of almost hallucinatory intensity, and which then, just as quickly, recede into the gloom.  The following passage, in which Lee, passing time in a coffee shop, catches his first glimpse of “The Band,” a bizarre group of youth who congregate to participate in a sort of calisthenics of ritualized violence, provides a good sense of the mood:

Out of the night’s long wet, a regiment of youths precipitated from the murk to bang up against the picture windows.

The young men’s hair was white blond and spiked into an unnatural display; tall, pointed, dangerous-looking. Ragged black bars of make-up — masks — were painted across their eyes. Eyes that stared — unblinking — through the plate glass. They splayed their hands on the slick surface.  The ones to the rear slapped their comrades on the back and grimaced, tongues lolling out, at the young man seated right by the window.


The gang taunting him through the window was clad in strange military jackets, heavily decorated with badges and baubles, billowing Aikido trousers and heavy boots.  They jumped and capered. The pendulous moon was over them and as they climbed atop each other’s shoulders– mouths open with muffled words [,] I was reminded of the of the stories I was told as a child, tales of the strange creatures that roamed the darkened s hours.  Goblins, ghasts.  None as agitated as these.

The sense of a dark, amorphous threat is everywhere — whether it be a sudden appearance of the band, shadowy figures  glimpsed slithering in and out of abandoned rail cars, a shark wending its way serenely through the small schools of fish in the aquarium at the Ancient Ocean, bridges and buildings looming over the city’s populace, or industrial land being reclaimed by a patient and relentless nature where “feral cats lay with the moonlight on their flanks, their amber eyes scanning the underbrush for prey.”

Lee’s original occupation, which was to sift torrents of apparently random data for subtle patterns, to search, in other words, for meaning, gives some hint as to the real preoccupation of the novel. Although the work is richly allusive throughout, with much to occupy the lover of the arcane, the predominant preoccupation is with the disintegration of meaning in a world of infinite connections, a clear reference to our new wired world, big data, and our perhaps dim intuitions that endless connection ultimately destroys meaning or certainty. Lee, who specialized in finding pattern in the apparently random, ruminates unhappily on the slipperiness of words, the “infinite ambiguity of some kinds of language,” the impossibility of ever grasping the endless recombinant connotations of which language is capable.  Under these circumstances, the allure of a drug which enabled the mind to encompass the meaning in infinite possibility is obvious.

There is  a strong sense of the impotence or desertion of reason in the face of far more powerful, and darkly Dionysian forces.  Coolly Apollonian statues on the edge of the city’s park have their backs turned to the violence and chaos of the anti-Conference demonstrations, and in a derelict rail yard,  “around the great steel belly [of an abandoned engine] verdant tentacles squeezed with predatory intent.” Throughout the story, there are intimations, of a very Yeatsian sort, that some dragon is rousing, that perhaps the social imbalances, highlighted by the conference, have set some bleak, apocalyptic force in motion, “something dangerous, something unanticipated, that [lies] just out of sight.” As Lee describes it, “the city’s lights seemed suddenly inadequate to the gathering gloom.”

Dubé’s association with surrealism is not new, but in linking this powerful and disturbing sensibility to such easily recognizable current events (the International Economic Conference a thinly veiled reference to the real life G20 Summit in Toronto, in 2010) he has plumbed a strange resonance between the art form and our times. As befits the surreal, the writing brings something dark and dimly familiar to the edge of our consciousness. Although exactly what defies articulation, we recognize something in the writing that expresses our own deep intuitions and fears. It seems rightly wrong.

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Kowalski, William: The Hundred Hearts

Cover Scan Courtesy of Thomas Allen & Son

Cover Scan Courtesy of Thomas Allen & Son

Kowalski, William
The Hundred Hearts
Thomas Allen, 2013
Softcover, 292 pages

Review by: Kerry Riley

If it is true, and I think it is, that literature often serves as a sounding board for the collective psychic preoccupations of a particular time and place, then it is perhaps not surprising, in our post millennial financial implosion world, that the American Dream is receiving some pointed literary scrutiny these days. If it is also true that one sees one’s culture most clearly from a distance, then it seems doubly fitting that transplanted American (now Canadian)  William Kowalski, should be the author of The Hundred Hearts, a novel that explores with clear-sighted empathy, exceptional dialogue and characterization, honesty, and, counterintuitively, much wry humour, the intricate relationship that exists between that dream, and the soldiers deployed in its defense.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1970, Kowlaski grew up in Pennsylvania, but now lives in Nova Scotia, Canada, having moved there  from Toronto, with his family,  in 2002.  He is the author of four previous novels, The Good Neighbour (2005), The Adventures of Flash Jackson (2003), Somewhere South of Here (2002) and Eddie’s Bastard (2000).

One tends, upon superficial acquaintance, to be underwhelmed by Jeremy Merkin, Kowalski’s protagonist in The Hundred Hearts, an apparent do-nothing, going nowhere, living in the grandparents’ basement, pot-using, pee-in-the-sink, kind of guy.  But only  until one gets to know him. Readers first meet Jeremy in his twenty-fifth year, almost five years after he was injured in the Afghan war, and a month after the death of his grandmother Helen, the gravitational core of the Merkin family.  He lives in Elysium, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, in his grandfather Al’s basement, also sharing the house with his mother Rita, and developmentally disabled cousin Henry.  His father, Wilkins, has spent the last twenty years as a permanent resident in a mental hospital, a situation most likely precipitated by an over-enthusiastic use of psychedelic drugs in his younger days.  The Merkin family, already under considerable strain, begins to unravel with the loss of Helen, its emotional anchor.

Both Jeremy and his grandfather Al, are war veterans with dark secrets to guard, and who have, each in his own way, struggled with reintegration into his community and his country.  Although now apparently recovered, Al suffered for many years after his return from the Vietnam War, from depression and alcoholism. The collateral damage was, for the family, significant and the tracing of its ongoing effects is one of the major preoccupations of the story. Politically incorrect in a way that makes one sympathize with political correctness, Al, smug, sarcastic, stubborn, domineering, angry and arrogant, seems irredeemable as a character. Yet, as Helen explained to the family, when they questioned her protective tolerance of him,

He wasn’t always like that.  Before he went away, he was a lot of fun. The Al I married went away to Vietnam and never came back.

The story begins on what seems to be an optimistic note for Jeremy, as he begins his new career as a high school physics teacher in Elysium, after five years of struggle to recover from physical and emotional injuries incurred in an IED bomb blast while on duty in Afghanistan. He returned from service with spinal cord damage which left him with chronic pain alleviated only by the use of medical marijuana, significant memory issues, and a raging case of PTSD.  The sense of optimism, however, is quickly challenged as Jeremy’s essential honesty leaves him open to manipulation, and he is entangled in a career-threatening situation involving an unstable female student, her possibly crazy Gulf War veteran father, and potentially bad cop stepbrother.  Although initially masked by his aversion to complaining, the reader also gradually becomes aware of the extent of Jeremy’s disabilities,  and to appreciate the heroism involved, for him, in everyday living.

The narrative follows the newly bereaved family’s trajectory as they struggle to adjust to the loss of Helen, to find a workable new configuration, and to deal with a crisis involving Henry and his absentee mother Jeanie.  Along the way, one is invited to examine the ancient and profound contract between soldier and country. This contract, already complex, is exponentially complicated when the national ideology, the American Dream, has, itself, come increasingly into question.

Kowalski stakes out his philosophical territory early, in the book’s two epigraphs. The first is a beautiful passage from Homer’s Odyssey, describing Elysium, the perfect world where Greek heroes ( in this case, Menelaus, a principal in the Trojan war) enjoy the afterlife:

As for your own end, Menelaus, you shall not die
in Argos, but the Immortals will take you to the
Elysian plain, which is at the ends of the world.
There fair-haired Rhadamanthus reigns, and men
lead an easier life than anywhere else in the world,
for in Elysium there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow,
but Oceanus breathes ever with a West wind that sings
softly from the sea, and gives fresh life to all men.

So, there it is, the implicit contract a nation makes with its heroes: defend our way of life, and you shall be rewarded with paradise. On its own, it might suggest a fairly straightforward tale of military heroics, were it not for the second epigraph, offered in counterpoint, from the late George Carlin, that persistent mosquito-whine in the ears of American dreamers:

They call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Indeed, both Al and his grandson Jeremy find themselves in Elysium after their tours of duty, but it is hardly paradise.  In fact, their Elysium is the moribund result of a real estate development fraud, perpetrated upon hapless home buyers by a Greek entrepreneur who sold hope and potential on the edge of the Mojave Desert, and when this failed to materialize in the form of further development and increasing land values, scampered off with his millions to an Aegean isle, leaving Elysians with their isolation, stagnant property values and sidewalks which led nowhere.

Kowlaski lavishes significant descriptive power on the depictions of this particular version of Elysium as a decaying parody of heaven.  It sits, he says, on

a vast plain of rusty dirt, home to foul-smelling creosote bushes and Joshua trees upthrust like gladiators’ fists

and is

…a town that looks as if it was laid out for a community of ghosts, partly real but mostly imaginary.  American flags snap in the mad rush of the Santa Ana winds, reminiscent of the whips of teamsters who once drove the borax mule trains down from the hills.  Two or three times a day, the ground is slapped by sonic booms from nearby Edwards Air Force Base.  Occasionally, a dark shape snakes beneath the sun, casting a deltoid shadow.  It’s the stealth bomber, emitting a quiet roar…

At the centre of the town sits its showpiece, an artificial lake, installed by Ouranakis, the original developer,

and which has since festered like an open sewer, riddled with stinking, nearly sentient algal life forms roughly the size and shape of sea serpents, and which is supplemented on a weekly basis by the volunteer fire department with yet more water stolen from the Indians of Mexico (….) A fountain blares greenish liquid skyward, spreading droplets of water with the texture of pudding and probably scattering heinous microscopic life forms into the Elysian air.

Clearly, there’s something rotten in Elysium.

One can’t help but draw parallels to the recent collapse of the American mortgage market, subsequent financial meltdown,  and the particularly unsavoury way in which the American financial sector played the American dreamers for fools.  Specific mention is made, in fact, to the Lehman Brothers debacle — Al has lost his life savings in the crash, a situation which forces him to conceive of more creative ways to protect his family’s security. Jeremy is also left to wonder just what it was that he risked his life, and lost his health, to defend. A sense of malevolent power, thwarted dreams, ethical confusion, and things gone awry, of extremity, and fraudulence pervade the pages of The Hundred Hearts, no doubt channeling undercurrents of the present American zeitgeist.

Part observational comic, part philosopher king, Kowalski channels this most elemental of discussions through the lives of memorable, and memorably funny characters.  With a keen eye for the tellingly hilarious detail, near pitch-perfect dialogue, and deft use of Jeremy’s ironic voice, Kowalski leads one far deeper into America’s heart of darkness than one might  otherwise be willing to go.  One brilliantly rendered scene in which Al creates a video for an internet buy and sell ad, as he conceives it to be, is a minor tragicomic masterpiece.

Although Kowalski presents his characters warts and all (and some, like Al, are very warty indeed) it is clear that he loves them.  As described earlier, Jeremy initially seems an easy target, a walking collection of qualities and habits that would automatically disqualify him as a protagonist in the American dream. Yet, Jeremy reveals himself to be uncomplaining, optimistic and thoughtful, despite significant difficulties, and, as Al reluctantly concedes,

even though he couldn’t be relied upon to take out the goddamn garbage, in the end you knew that Jeremy was going to do the right thing.

However, in doing so, he finds himself, often, at odds with his country and his community. Even Al, whose running commentary on life around him would make All In The Family’s Archie Bunker seem like a left-wing radical, is given an internal code of honour, and is, ultimately, motivated by his family’s best interests, as he understands them.

By his own admission, a bit of a shallow thinker, Jeremy joined the army without much  awareness.  Since his return from Afghanistan, however, he’s been giving the subject of war quite a bit of thought. All this cerebral effort has led to a reckoning of sorts, and a very big question.  He enlisted with same sense of heroic, freedom-fighting adventure as fuels young boys’ war games, but his post-war experience has led him to gradually understand the darker contract that exists between a soldier and his country, and he concludes that the role of the army was:

not to fight for freedom, whatever that nonsense meant, but to see the unseeable, do the undoable, and later, try to forget the unforgettable. And to somehow try to fit back into a society that had no clue.

As mentioned earlier, his Elysium leaves a lot to be desired, and citizens of the culture whose (now questionable) ideals he was supposedly defending are wary of his presence back amongst them, preferring cluelessness, not anxious to know what has been required to maintain their dreams, or at what personal cost to the soldiers, and sending him decidedly mixed signals. Prodded to boast of his kills, he (and his father before him) are also set apart as monsters of sorts, for having killed. When Jeanie,  Al’s daughter, expresses her fear that Al might kill the unidentified father of her son, Henry, if she names him, Rita, the older daughter, defends Jeanie’s thinking. “It’s not like you haven’t done it before,” she reminds him.  Mild-mannered Jeremy, is singled out by Jenn, a confused student, as someone she might ask to kill her step-brother. “(…) you were in the war, right? You’ve killed people before (….) It would be easy for you.” she reasons.   It is left to Al to name the hypocrisy, as he explains,

Either all of them were criminals or none of them were.  You didn’t train guys to kill and then accuse them of murder. You just let them kill. Nothing else made sense.

Jeremy has slowly come to understand that whether or not he survived his tour of duty, he (like his father before him) is never coming home, and that his country has been complicit in his sacrifice.

Jeremy’s gradual awakening leads him to a larger question, one that the eternal and elemental Mojave may have ignited in his mind, and that has troubled mankind for millennia:

All these people, billions of them. All the people who’ve ever lived. Most of us, you know, we’re just going to die without ever doing anything that important and no one will ever even remember that we were here. No one. And I guess what I wonder is why no one ever stops to think about that kind of stuff before they do something. Even something big, like building a skyscraper or starting a new country or something. Or starting a war. Or even fighting in one (….) You go into it thinking there’s some big reason behind it, but there isn’t. It’s just the same damn thing over and over again. So many people get hurt and die, but eventually, so much time passes even their suffering doesn’t matter anymore. It’s like they never existed.

In what is no doubt a deliberate comment on the current American situation, it is Wilkins, Jeremy’s institutionalized father, who sounds a lonely note of optimism, advising his son to be patient with humanity:

I know that humanity relies on a few people to help move them forward. A few special people (…) who ask the right questions. For every person who has a great idea, there are millions more who will scream that you are ruining everything, you’re crazy, you’re making things worse. So we kind of march in place, until finally a change takes hold and suddenly we’ve  moved an inch forward(….) all I can tell you is we are moving forward, little by little.

The overall effect of The Hundred Hearts, is both haunting and hopeful.  The reader will be haunted by Jeremy’s gentleness and his crimes, his efforts to do right and his lack of reward.  There is hope, however, as Wilkins notes, when one begins to ask the right questions.


Shop Indie Bookstores

For those Canadian shoppers interested in ordering from an independent Canadian bookstore, your best bet, after clicking on the link above, is to use the “Find an Indie Bookstore Near You” option, and click on an individual store’s web page link.

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What Our Universities Are Teaching

This is an excellent and interesting post from the National Post’s David Berry.  So encouraging to see the growth in (and modernization of) CanLit studies compared to 30 or 40 years ago.

Ten authors you have to read (if you’re a Canadian student) by David Berry, National Post.



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Support Independent Canadian Bookstores!

Kerry On Can Lit Adopts IndieBound

Are you, as an enlightened and enthusiastic member of the reading public, suffering from repressed-guilt-induced book-buying ennui?
Not sure? Not even sure what that might be?

Take this simple test to assess the current state of your book-buying mental health:

1. Do apocalyptic pronouncements about the death of the book make you gloomy?

2. Do you lament the recent demise of your local bookstore?

3. Do you lament the demise of bookstores in general?

4. Do you avert your gaze when clicking on your link to:

 (insert name of the vaguely menacing-in-a-Brave-New-Worldian-sort-of-way, member of the online bookselling oligarchy here)

reminding yourself that you are only doing this because there are no local bookstores in your locale, all the while uncomfortably aware that this may very well be why there are no local bookstores in your locale?

5. Do you avert your gaze when clicking on your link to:

(insert name of the vaguely menacing-in-a-Brave-New-Worldian-sort-of-way, member of the online bookselling oligarchy here)

even though there is a local bookstore in your locale, because, darn it! it’s just so much easier?

6.  Do you intuit, vaguely, while doing so, that you are making your literary bed, and will, inevitably, have to lie in it?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are likely a-slosh in repressed-guilt- induced book-buying ennui, a direct consequence of the actions you’ve been forced to take, lately, to support your reading habit, and the resulting (and growing!) gap between your ideals and your practice.  Immediate countermeasures are advisable.

Good news!  Countermeasures are available! Imperfect and incomplete countermeasures to be sure, but antidotal nonetheless. And, they are only a click away!

The American Booksellers Association has a program called IndieBound which, amongst other worthy endeavours, provides an interactive “Find A Bookstore” map which is easy to use and available to Canadian as well as American users. One simply types in one’s postal code (in place of the American ZIP) specifies the distance one is willing to travel if one wishes to visit the store in person (or the limit to the radius of what one considers to be local) and, abracadabra, the locations of local independent bookstores in your area appear on the map, along with links to the stores’ websites and other contact information.  Many (if not all) have online purchase options.


So…there are a few issues.  If you experienced a small frisson of confusion when you read “American Booksellers Association,” you may be there ahead of me.  First, although I can’t speak for the American side of things, the Canadian bookstore database is quite incomplete.  The IndieBound site allows individual visitors to add the locations of favourite bookstores to the map, but this function has been “temporarily disabled” to allow for upgrading, according to a message on the site. It’s been this way for awhile. The other, even bigger issue is that when a blog reader clicks on the IndieBound logo, they are transferred to the IndieBound page and presented with the option of to “buy online from an indie bookstore” which sounds wonderful but will only take you to American stores. If you  are a Canadian buyer who wants to support independent Canadian booksellers, you will have to circumvent this limitation by using the “Find a Bookstore” option instead, and clicking to the individual bookstore’s web page to see if you can order from them online.

One  aspect of the IndieBound initiative which needs to be understood is that when a reader accesses the online purchase option through a blogger’s web site and actually makes a purchase, the blogger receives a small percentage of the sale price (6% net).   This does not occur, however, if the buyer uses the  map to locate a store and makes the purchase through the store’s own web page, which, at the moment is the only way to purchase online from a Canadian store. This puts Canadian bloggers like myself in the position of having to choose between supporting a Canadian store or receiving a percentage of a sale to an American store.   I have decided that, while supporting independent bookstores anywhere is a good thing, for a Can Lit blogger like myself, supporting  independent Canadian bookstores is an even better thing.  Therefore, I’ve included instructions for Canadian readers about how to deal directly with a Canadian independent with each post that includes an IndieBound link. To give you some idea of the size of the sacrifice I am prepared to make, IndieBound takes pains to inform its affiliates (like me) that while commissions are calculated quarterly, no cheques will be sent until the amount meets or exceeds $25. (Insert wry Canadian smiley face here). The perfect solution, of course, would be a Canadian version of IndieBound, which would, ipso facto, support both Canadian independent booksellers, authors and bloggers!

The last consideration for me, when making the decision to join IndieBound, was the potential conflict inherent in any situation where a reviewer might be compensated for book sales.  My mandate for this blog has always been to showcase worthy Canadian writing. I have never done “take down” reviews.  A review on Kerry on Can Lit indicates that I am excited about the book, I want people to know about it, and feel I have something interesting to discuss with readers which may contribute to their appreciation of the work.  If I don’t like a book, or don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation about it, I don’t review it. It seems to me that this pre-existing stance negates any conflict about potential compensation.

As I said earlier, any initiative that supports independent booksellers anywhere is a good thing for the reading world. So, hurray for IndieBound! Now, let’s push for one that’s entirely our own!

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A Pilgrimage to Montreal’s Argo Bookshop

camera transfer 321A Pilgrimage to Montreal’s  Argo Bookshop

by: Kerry Riley

It seems a very Canadian thing that this intrepid lover of Can Lit should find herself, one recent, sweltering but sunny blue July day, caught up in the raucous groove and riotous colour of a Caribbean festival parade on Ste. Catherine Street, on her much anticipated pilgrimage to Montreal’s storied Argo Bookshop, the purpose of which was to seek out review recommendations for interesting new Canadian fiction from a Montreal perspective.

Established in 1966, the Argo is one of Montreal’s  oldest bookstores.  It’s original owner and founder, John Lamont George, was a fixture of the Montreal camera transfer 326literary scene until his death in 2006. Tiny (200 square feet) but mighty (6,000 volumes) it was kept running by two devoted employees after Mr. George’s demise before eventually acquiring new ownership.  Through some trick of light and line the store manages to appear airy and commodious despite its tiny size, and a survey of the shelves quickly indicates that this is a readers’ bookstore, the selections carefully considered and, in light of the space restrictions, surprisingly complete.  camera transfer 327Although I was specifically interested in Canadian literature, the store offers a wide selection across the reading spectrum.

Current owners J. P. Karwacki, Jesse Eckerlin, Meaghan Acosta and Gap Boo Ahn are young, enthusiastic, dedicated, and were only too happy to help select some fresh Canadian writing for me to consider.  At one point, the counter was completely obscured by a stack of tantalizing possibilities, but, after much agonizing and in consultation with the ever gracious Meaghan Acosta, the following six titles, in no particular order, were selected:

The City’s Gates

by Peter Dube                                                                                 


Scan Courtesy of Cormorant Books

                                                  Looking For Tito

                                                    by Goran Simic

Picture Courtesy of Frog Hollow Press

Scan Courtesy of Frog Hollow Press





  Blood Secrets                                                                                               Exit

  by Nadine McInnis                                                                    by Nelly Arcan     

Exit Nelly Arcan

Scan courtesy of Anvil Press

Picture Courtesy of Biblioasis

Scan Courtesy of Biblioasis


and…..Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

              Niko by Dimitri Nasrallah

Stayed tuned for reviews.


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