Unwin, Peter: Searching For Petronius Totem

Searching-for-Petronius-Totem-cover-Jan26Unwin, Peter
Searching For Petronius Totem
Freehand Books, 2017
Softcover, 247 pages

Let me get straight to the point. This is a brilliant book: a savagely satirical romp, a slaughterhouse for sacred cows (tender sensibilities beware) an eulogy for the Romantic hero, a fever dream of early 21st century anxiety, a midlife identity crisis, and a voyage of self-discovery. Simultaneously poignant and absurd, it is also, somewhat counter-intuitively, an assertion of the primacy of love and family, all rolled into an hilarious, madcap, fantastical, infinitely quotable, Canadian road trip saga, with, I suspect, the spirit of Bertolt Brecht presiding. Rather astoundingly, never once does Unwin lose control of the proceedings.

As I have noted, the framing structure of the story is quite standard — a road trip of self-discovery.  Unwin’s treatment of it is anything but. Jack Vesoovian (the various connotative associations of whose name will reward a ponder) is a Canadian poet and author of a certain vintage and type, immediately familiar to those of us who came of age in Canada in the seventies when the country was in its cultural adolescence, that supremely beautiful, supremely awkward stage of unfiltered idealism when the question of our artistic/cultural development assumed a glow of unassailable profundity.  Unassailable profundity, by definition, mutes one’s critical faculties, and is, of course, fertile ground for all manner of self-delusion.  For those susceptible to the siren call of the arts, (perhaps, in particular, idealistic, young males in thrall to the cult of the Romantic hero, and its echo, the Beat aesthetic) sorting out just where one falls out along the brilliant/delusional continuum can be the major psychic work of middle age. Having retired, de tout hauteur, to a poetic aerie/squalid rooming house (depending on one’s perspective) clutching his treasured collection of Grove Press first editions, and his righteous idealism, and reeling from a domestic dispute of relationship-ending proportions,  Jack, it seems, has arrived at this painful juncture.

When an attempt to construct a self-sustaining artistic brotherhood amongst the rooming house patrons fails for want of a common purpose, Jack defaults to another literary trope — a mythic Canadian road trip, in search of his old friend/ alter ego, and quintessential Canadian Romantic literary hero, Peter Tidecaster, aka, Petronius Totem, who, he has intuited, may be in peril.

As Jack rumbles along the trans Canada north of Superior in his (possibly ex-) wife Elaine’s “rotting Ford Sable,” and plunges into the static-and-star-filled night beyond the reach of modern telecommunications, there is time to reminisce about his long relationship with Peter/Petronius, and come face-to-face with his own middle-aged self. The reader is regaled with tales of Petro’s prototypical sex and booze-soaked adventures in the green pastures of a nascent Canadian art scene — the Kamp Can Lit Debacle, in which an uncharacteristically blameless and chaste (or nearly blameless and chaste) Petro unwittingly finds himself the catalyst for a night of Dionysian revel and awakening amongst the participants in an arts camp for teenage girls, and the hilarious Road Book/Book Road cross-country extravaganza, “the greatest, most ambitious, and surely the most poorly organized multimedia event in the history of art.”  A tinge of pathos creeps into the story as, having earlier informed the reader of Pete’s ascent to the realms of glory,  (the publication and aggressive marketing of his celebrity, myth-affirming memoir, TEN THOUSAND BUSTED CHUNKS. The Life of Petronius Totem*) Jack recounts his ignominious fall — revelations that the contents of said memoir were mostly fictitious.

Jack’s own reminisces of the young Pete Tidecaster’s home life, in all its squalid and desperate suburban insanity (laid bare in a brilliant series of observational sketches  each of which deserves an appreciative paragraph of its own) unveils something unexpectedly remarkable and admirable at the core of Petronius and makes it clear that, in Peter Tidecaster’s case, invention WAS necessity. By the time Petronius launches his last great stunt — the first attempted solo circumnavigation of the mighty Lake Superior in an inner-tube, sustained by fish caught by hook and line, an ample supply of Canadian rye, and the twenty-six novels of Georges Simenon — one has developed an awkward admiration for this aging figurehead of a dying aesthetic, and derives little glee from the utter inanity of his exit from the public stage — last seen drifting helplessly beyond Slate Islands, he is eventually recovered, after a cataclysmic storm, snagged in a tree, up-side-down and unconscious, a scant six hundred yards from his launch point.

We learn, further, that this is not the first time Jack has dropped everything to find his old friend. Four years earlier, Pete had disappeared suddenly from Hamilton (where the two had grown up together) necessitating a cross-country pilgrimage on Jack’s part to rescue him from a sketchy hotel in Vancouver in which he had holed up, apparently to drink himself silly and, hopefully, elude an impressive number of creditors.  Perhaps unduly influenced by Elaine’s ringing anti-endorsement — “Pete Tidecaster is a stinking drunk, and the world will be better off when his liver gives out,”– it is only too easy to believe Pete when he confides boozily to Jack that he thinks he “might be in some serious shit,” and pleads for his help.

This particular reminiscence allows Unwin to lay the groundwork for another major narrative thread — a dark conspiracy involving Leggit International Fibre Optic and Fast Food Incorporated, a shadowy multinational with fingers in the prison system, apparently bent on monopolizing a new technology: take-out cyber chicken, home delivered in the form of edible drones, “fibre optic fried chicken that [flies] straight through your window and [lands] on the kitchen table.” Before one writes this off as hilariously hyperbolic techno-anxiety masquerading as a plot device, one would be well advised to peruse the following article from the CBC radio program Spark, entitled “This Week In Edible Robots,” which posits that “we may experience in the near future, robotic pizzas that just hop onto your table, ready to slice.” It is hard to judge whether Unwin was being uncannily prescient, or whether, in this age of constantly accelerating change, where, every day it seems, the laughably impossible becomes possible, it’s just very difficult to hyperbolize. In any case, rumours are circulating that Leggit Chicken has ambitions that go far beyond the fast food market, that they are, in fact, taking a proprietary interest in reality itself, and to that end, have been buying up patents on human DNA, and hiding edible microchips in their order-in.  If there is any doubt left as to their general dastardliness and the threat they pose to the Canadian way of life, consider this: they are believed to have been planting digestible digital sensors in Timbits.

As Petronius warns Jack, just before his final disappearance,

We’ve been mediated, commodified, signified, digitized, deconstructed, neo-liberalized, and now we’re getting chickenized.

As it turns out, Petronius should know, as he has, apparently, stolen the latest version of Leggit’s software (version 5.1) He is, thus, a person of particular interest to a multinational conglomerate with an eye on world domination — one whose operating budget far exceeds the point at which concepts of justice, crime or punishment cease to have any relevance. This is, as one might intuit, an extremely tenuous situation in which to find oneself, and one which Jack inadvertently inherits when he agrees to fill in for Pete at his hotel desk clerk job while Pete uses Jack’s plane ticket to make a hasty getaway. Leggit’s muscle soon arrives, looking for Peter and mistakes regarding identity ensue, a crucial confusion which will complicate Jack’s life for some time to come.

Returning to the present, somewhere on the Trans-Canada, north of Superior, between Dead Horse Creek and Pukaskwa River, and shortly after Jack has discovered the first real evidence that he is on right track in his search for his friend (a bit of phallic hieroglyphic graffiti on a washroom wall) narrative threads intersect and things come to a car-crash of a climax. In an allegorical tangle of Gordian proportions, Jack experiences a figurative head-on collision with a projection of his male delusions manifesting as the mirage-like “beauty of the north shore,” a “ghost-walking stunner who trod the Trans-Canada in a size twelve Aguaclara two-piece and swung her hips like a pony.” This psychic diversion precipitates a much more literal collision with “one of those family vehicles that resemble armoured personnel carriers with the roof stacked high with camping gear,” complete with a squabbling couple with nondescript careers, children, dog, and inflatable water toys.  In other words, the end to any Romantic hero-worshipping, idealistic male artiste’s dreams of greatness. To add to Jack’s troubles, just prior to his accident, a close brush with a Leggit transport truck resulted in their surveillance re-establishing his whereabouts. This, of course, allows loose ends to be gathered although at a very inopportune time for Jack. The resulting run-in with a Leggitt assassin, and a near final moment of clarity, brings Jack to the epiphanic understanding that life, pared down to its essentials, contains only Elaine and his family. 

Energized by his new-found certainty, he launches an heroic quest to regain his hearth and home. Dazed from the accident, various bits of the car impaled in his person, and woozy from loss of blood, he limps to the nearest vestige of civilization, the “Bite Me Bait Shop Emporium: a combination gas station, grocery store, bait shop, restaurant, dance hall, video store, motel, and dew worm outlet, all of which were long bankrupt and now in shambles,” and, significantly, the home of the Petronius graffiti, and a pay phone — a critical link to Elaine.  Rather incongruously, he also discovers Petronius, the target of his original quest, chopping wood at the back of the establishment, looking very ordinary, and Pete-like.  Ushering Jack into his mouldy motel room, noting, in the falling light, that they “don’t have much time,” Pete guides him through a nightmarish vision of the near future, the almost-now,  a world stripped of all meaning by infinite choice, complete with digitized DNA,  and extreme specialization allowing for, amongst other things, personalized, virtual pornography, — the infamous stolen Leggitt 5.1 software. “Reality,” Pete notes, “[is] proprietary now.” However, when Pete waxes grandiloquently nostalgic about the two friends’ role in the defense of the ideals of art,  “the revolution that we forged with our own unstoppable artistic and sexual appetites,” insisting that  (he, Jack, and other like-minds) “waved the raised middle finger of our mighty members into the face of the world,” Jack doesn’t remember it quite the same way.  As he describes, “I stared at him. I remember being drunk and doing several things I wish I hadn’t, but nothing like that.” Clearly, the power of the Petronius myth is fading.  A psychic battle of sorts ensues, as the middle-aged poet comes to terms with his reality and his delusions, a moment that coincides with the physical demise of Petronius Totem — who leaves this earthy coil as only he could —  in the midst of an incoming cyber-chicken attack, in a glorious send-up of the singularity, complete with an aluminum pie-plate helmet. 

In the case of Searching For Petronius Totem, attempts to make the always excruciating decisions about what to include in the discussion, and what must, in the interests of concision,  be abandoned, are confounded by an embarrassment of riches. Above all else, though, appreciative mention must be made of the writing itself.  From his opening gambit, Unwin ascends to a very high wire of whip smart, absurdist satire, and never descends — an admirable enough feat, further amplified by his meticulous sentence craft, and unfailing sense of rhythm. I have always admired Unwin’s mastery of language, but feel it has reached some sort of apogee in this novel.  A compendium of eminently quotable quotes, this writing is catnip for reviewers like myself who admire a phrase with sparkle.  Consider this apt depiction of the interpersonal atmosphere immediately after Jack drops a large conversational bomb:  “The room blistered with silence.” Brilliant in its exact simplicity.  This artistry serves Unwin particularly well in his acerbically telling character observations. Take, for example, a quick assessment of one denizen of a seedy Toronto bar as  “a female alcoholic of limp grandeur,” or his rendition of an improbable, would-be Leggitt assassin as “a ball-busting, bingo-playing, [knitting] needle-packing, overweight prairie girl with an unfinished doctoral thesis in French critical theory … with her heavy, informal breasts, [and] the hair that appeared to be in curlers even when it wasn’t.”  As mentioned earlier, his rapid-fire assessments of Pete’s childhood home life are particularly to be admired — scorchingly succinct observation under the cover of satire, simultaneously revealing, heartbreaking, hilarious and cathartic. As evidence, I offer this tidbit regarding Pete’s mother:

At that point Peter’s mother drifted into the kitchen dressed in a terrifying blue negligee that seemed to be made up of a million butterfly wings all sewn together and all of them swishing when she moved. She did not so much walk into the kitchen as float into it, skimming over her husband [asleep on the floor] without looking down and moving instinctively to the refrigerator, on top of which stood a clear glass cookie jar packed with pills.

She swept down the jar, cradled it on her hip like a bongo, unscrewed the top, and dug out a handful of blue, red, and green pills that she hurled into her mouth and washed down with a gulp of milk from a quart container. Wiping the froth from her lips she held me with an intense glare. Her eyes sizzled in the way of women who are cross-addicted and have given up their dance careers to live at home with disagreeable alcoholic husbands.

The savage style is, importantly, buttressed by substance (significant love of literature, endless wordplay, and allusory wit, ) and serves as a vehicle for what is, at its core, a serious, anguished examination of an artist’s eternal conundrum, and the terrors of our modern, rapid-change, increasingly digitized, and commodified existence.

While commenting on the doings of man, Unwin is implacable and scathing. His style softens, however, whenever his attention turns to the natural world — in particular when describing the iconic and inscrutable beauty of the north shore of Lake Superior.  He returns to familiar symbolic ground here, with a few sly references to earlier works (whistling, northern lights, and the beauty of trout streams, for example). To travel north, to Superior, in Unwin’s work,  is to experience a mystical transition from the quotidien, banal, and human, to the natural, elemental, mythic and eternal.  The point in the trip at which radio signals are lost and replaced with static delineates a portal of sorts. As Jack expresses it, he “drove grimly through the white hiss into the glory and the misery of being alive, or at least not dead.” The northern lights seem to function as harbingers or indicators of a life force, an energy (similar, perhaps to that considered in Don MacKay’s wonderful The Shell of the Tortoise) which I will dub “the natural divine,” and which is, perhaps, best accessed through the imagination, the subconscious, or, in Jack’s case, the semi-hypnotic state induced by solitary, late-night driving.  In one such case, Jack reminisces about a variety of artists of the literary persuasion gathered at the end of a week of mentoring youth in an arts camp, to drink and debrief. As Jack describes it, 

 Our work was done. We had done what artists do. We had thrown gasoline on the fire of young kids.  We made clever statements about the meaning of life and art etc. We dismissed semiotics and went into the mountains and acted foolishly. Now we sat on the deck beneath a serious display of northern lights drinking beer, all of us except for Roddy Trumbaugh who had sworn off drinking beer altogether after breaking two teeth and losing part of his right ear in an incident he couldn’t remember.

Such is the world of man.  The northern lights, however, alert us to the immanence of the sacred, and almost immediately,

the buck appeared and stood stone-still in the field. A towering fourteen-point rack sprouted from its head and a white tuft curled from its neck, giving the beast the look of a powerful mandarin. Clearly it had no interest in writers, artists, columnists, educators, and wind-bags of all stripes. Just standing there it surpassed anything we had ever done. All our “edgy accounts of life in the fast lane” could not compare with what was out there in that field in the unfathomable soul of that animal.

It stood motionless as the red strands of the northern lights swished across the universe, brushing its back with ionic tentacles and shooting up again. Someone whistled. The buck cocked an ear, not in our direction, but toward the trees. A white shiver of light shot straight down to the earth and illuminated the animal as it went from us without concern. It was gone; it had entered another dimension where we could not follow.

Semiotics, it seems, was nothe only thing dismissed.

At its heart, this tale is a reckoning — the story of the idealist’s struggle to come to terms with the disparity between one’s life goals and one’s actual accomplishments, one’s dreams and one’s reality — in short, a mid-life crisis — Jack’s long search for, re-examination of, and final poignant farewell to Petronius, its signposts.  Although Petronius Totem/Pete Tidecaster is believable as a character in and of himself, presented, of course, through a lens of satiric hyperbole, an argument can be made that he is also a fragment of Jack’s personality, his idealized, romanticized, self-image, the maintenance of which is growing increasingly untenable as he ages. Jack’s various portrayals of himself (although simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-mocking) leave little doubt that he identifies with the Romantic hero (a là Byron et al)  and views domesticity as a primary threat to his freedom and potential as an artist. Life, in the form of Elaine, has presented Jack with an ultimatum — choose: your artistic idealism or your family. It is not insignificant, in an allegorical sort of way, that Elaine loathes Pete Tidecaster (who speaks naturally in iambic pentameter, and whose promotional picture is explicitly compared to Byron), and that it was a domestic crisis which resulted in Jack wandering, exhausted, through the foggy midnight streets of Hamilton, feeling the conflicting pulls of family and art. Having been rejected as inconsequential, even by the neighbourhood dogs, he has a quasi-mystical experience:

I moved on beneath a soft rain of ash, stopping only to sneeze.  When the sneeze was over, I saw it.

The sign.

The sign bearing the face of Petronius Totem.  My old friend was on a sign. More than a sign, he was on a honking big billboard.  There was that blatantly photogenic, plangent, clear-eyed face in a familiar pose. The pose was Thomas Phillips’ portrait of Lord Byron all over again, the one with the big eyes and the fat lips.

. . .

Not Pete Tidecaster, but the new faux classical celebrity golden-boy author’s nom de plume in lights and forty-foot letters. Petronius Totem™ had been born.

Not long after, Jack sets out in search of his old friend — now a “totem” — a revered symbol (as the billboard made clear) of the quintessential Romantic hero, and, there’s little doubt, Jack’s alter ego — pushed to the sidelines and threatened by the demands of middle age.  On his long drive through the wilds of Superior,  Jack comes to terms with his friend’s legacy, and, in fact, with himself — his youthful identity as a Romantic hero, and the true measure of his talent. It is Petronius’s  gentle observation, “You’re a good man, Jack. You’re not a great man. But you’re a good man.” that releases Jack from his idealism, allows him to honour it (“At least we tried.”) and then to refocus his energies on his family, knowing that he has not betrayed an ideal, but acknowledged a truth.  


If Searching For Petronius Totem was nothing more than a sustained, virtuosic scream at the world, it would still, in its own right, stand as a significant, and significantly entertaining, accomplishment. But, of course, it is much more. If one is too blinded by the flash, dazzle, and sheer audacity of the satire, and the wicked humour, it can take some time to register the searching sadness that underpins the writing, but the lament for lost things (youth, dreams, idealism, connections to nature, the Romantic ideal, the possibility of heroism, respect for the value of art) is keen and deep.  This dual quality of the writing, at once reverent and disdainful, provides insight into the core of Unwin’s concerns. It is a topic which, in certain respects, has occupied others, including Sheila Heti , and,  Jonathan Franzen who, in a recent absorbing piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in the New York Times, discusses, amongst many other things, the intricate balance an artist must try to maintain between self-doubt and self-confidence. The thin line, indeed the pivot point, upon which this balance is maintained (or not) is the psychic space of Unwin’s story.  It is, at one level, the story of an artist’s confrontation with his alter-ego, a struggle to come to terms with his talent and its limitations, to confront the heroes/demons/pretensions populating his youthful idealism, and to find the most meaningful focus for the time and energy remaining to him.  This age-old artistic conundrum, however, gains significance when it merges with the more timely struggle of how to know what is true in general — a task growing rapidly more pertinent and difficult in the maelstrom of exponential technological change in which we find ourselves (remember the robo-pizza!).  Consider this take-down of modern material coolness, levelled by the sharp-tongued Petronius, as he attempts to bolster Jack’s flagging faith in himself:

All they [non-artist males] do is walk around in suits, talk on cell-phones, order sushi, flip real-estate, and update their Facebook pages. That’s it, Jack. You’re not like that. You’re down-to-earth, man. Earthy. Are you kidding? Women are crazy about that. They kill for earthy. Just wait till they find out you wrote The Fly That Would Not Die For Love But Did Anyway.

What, exactly, is being mocked here? What begins as a take-down of shallow materialism in favour of an artistic ideal, is immediately devalued by the suggested motivation for the idealism.  This is a small example of Unwin playing both sides of the knife-edge — a repeating pattern throughout the story, involving ideas large and small.

In what or whom should one believe? — Jack Vesoovian, latent literary genius or  “pathetic skirt-chasing middle-aged white male with a drinking/drug problem who couldn’t see past his masculine privilege”? Pete Tidecaster, vapid poseur, glibly manipulating a fledgling Canadian culture’s susceptibility to pretension, or, Petronius Totem, a brave and admirable survivor and defender of art for art’s sake, a technological mastermind who engineers his own brilliant escape into cyberspace, or a pathetic drunk, gone to ground in a mouldy motel room, a tinfoil pie plate strapped to his head;  a devious plot to commodify and monetize existence, or a brave new technological utopia; bloodless technocrats who insist that all value can be commodified or creative zealots, scornful of any practicality? At what point does the ideal become ridiculous, techno-anxiety become paranoia, belief in oneself become a delusion?  On a different level, therefore, the story is a dialectic between cherished ideals and reality, between confident identity and self-delusion, between, ultimately, the sacred (that which is worthy of dedication and sacrifice) and the profane (that which is not) and, in this rollicking absurdist satire, Unwin has found the perfect vehicle with which to present it. 

Unwin’s writing has been preoccupied for some time with the tension between one’s aspirations and one’s abilities, one’s ideals and one’s limitations, potential, performance, regrets and reward — a recurrent theme in Life Without Death.  In this latest effort, the conversation reaches a crescendo — at once furious, outrageous, incisive, and rib-crackingly funny, and existing, brilliantly, at the intersection of very current cultural and personal issues.  One has concerns, of course, for the fate of this work in the current climate of fragile sensibilities and the tyranny of taking offense, but regardless of its reception, it stands as a significant piece of writing. Although Petronius’s amicable integration into Jack’s mature self seems to signal a resolution of sorts, one can’t help but hope, for purely selfish reasons, that Unwin’s own artistic endeavours continue full force.

*likely an allusion to the James Frey A Million Little Pieces controversy
















Posted in New Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Kowalski, William: The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo

Best Polish Restaurant KowalskiKowalski, William
The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo
Orchard Street Press, 2017
Softcover, 193 pages

I first reviewed a novel by transplanted American (now Canadian) novelist, screenwriter, locavore and pickle-maker extraordinaire,  William Kowalski, in 2013 — his wonderful The Hundred Hearts — and noted, at the time, that its dissection of the heart of the American dream was apropos, considering the times. Now that American political life has descended into a circus that daily outdoes all attempts at parody, it is, perhaps, fitting that some parallels can be drawn between Kowalski’s latest literary effort and an obituary.  Lest this observation seem discouragingly dire, let me rush to assure readers that all the elements for which Kowalski has been praised in the past by others — “unflappable good nature,” “gentle pacing,”  and myself — clear-sighted empathy,  and humour — can be found in The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo. 

The organizational framework for the novel  juxtaposes two stories — that of Aniela, the beginning of everything, and of Iggy who presides, funereally, over its end.  In 1908, as a young peasant girl of sixteen, Aniela, the eventual revered matriarch of the Podbielski restaurant dynasty, fleeing both Prussian and patriarchal oppression, immigrates to America with her mother Sofia and two sisters, Jadwiga and Catharina.  Although little effort is spared by Kowalski to  impart the horrors and stench of a steerage class transatlantic passage at the dawn of the 20th century, in the end it turns out to have been worth it. The women’s risky bid to escape their bleak present was providentially timed as it also allowed them to avoid the even bleaker future which unfolded in Poland during the First World War. Their early experiences as newcomers to the land of the free are prototypical. Having landed in the Black Rock area of Buffalo (a bit of a Polish enclave) for these simple peasants every day presents an exponentially steep learning curve and they teeter continuously on the brink of novelty overload, astounded by such marvels as electric lights, laundry machines, and horseless carriages. As Aniela notes,

It wouldn’t have surprised her a bit to look out the window and see ladies’ dresses and men’s suits taking themselves for a walk, with no people inside them That was the kind of thing you came to expect in Ameryka.

By dint of hard work, cooperation and resilience (i.e the requisite input) the women begin to flourish in their new home, acquiring a financial security unimaginable back in the old country. Despite early discouraging experience with males, Aniela (eventually anglicized to Angela) marries Jan Podbielski, a sweet, smart, up-and-comer, and her future as the wife of a grocery magnate seems assured.  However, after only five years of happy marriage, Aniela, mother of a four-year-old daughter and pregnant with her second child, suddenly finds herself widowed when Jan dies unexpectedly of an aneurysm. Thus her legend has its real beginning, as, true to the ideal, Aniela, with the help of her sisters and a lot of backbreaking work, prevails in the face of withering odds — managing to raise her children on her own, working first cleaning houses, and later, opening, along with her sisters, a bakery.  The bakery is a huge success, due, not in small part, to the fact that its sourdough bread is made from a “mother” or starter, which Sofia managed to keep alive on the long ago voyage from the motherland, as it were.  Members of the large Polish population in the neighbourhood find this living link with the old country irresistible, and eventually, on the strength of this popularity, Aniela opens the titular restaurant, a solid, no-nonsense-Polish-country-food kind of eatery, which quickly becomes the gravitational centre of the Polish community, and known as the best Polish restaurant in Buffalo, providing a good living for four generations of Podbielskis.

We first meet the forty-five-year-old Ignatz Podbielski, (Iggy for short) Aniela’s great grandson, in the fall of 2015, standing in a parking lot, staring unprepossessingly at his equally unprepossessing restaurant.  A stubborn anachronism which refused to evolve, Angela’s restaurant’s glory days are now a distant memory — as are Iggy’s. Nominally a family-owned enterprise, Angela’s has, for quite some time, existed solely as a result of Iggy’s unimaginative but unwavering devotion to the idea  and ideals of the restaurant and of his heroic great grandmother, a portrait of whom still presides. Having had the bad luck of being handed the reins from his father just as the business started to wane, the result, in large part, of the inevitable succession inherent in any immigrant story — a gradual die-off of its natural clientele — homesick (but thrifty) Polish immigrants in search of a decent (and, of course, reasonably priced) old-fashioned Polish meal,  Iggy finds himself presiding over the last days of the Podbielski empire, a time when simple adherence to the values of hard work and reliability no longer functions as a business model.  Dogged, stalwart, and simple in his beliefs, Iggy is a low-key kind of guy — the sort that can leave his wife without her noticing — and thus it comes as little surprise that he is unable to ignite a sense of history and purpose in his disinterested extended family and the decision to sell the restaurant is made — demolition and redevelopment of the site its inevitable fate. In the three days prior to the closure of the sale, Iggy has time to reflect on the arc of the restaurant’s story, to deliver, in effect, an eulogy for Angela’s, and the energy, work, and beliefs that made it possible — a sombre Puck, as the curtains close on this particular American dream.

As noted earlier, the hallmark strengths of Kowalski’s writing are all present in this work — gentle, warm, compassionate, and humorous appreciation of the ordinary life, the celebration of a good story simply told and of the courage and dignity at work in what might otherwise be considered unremarkable lives.  This is, once again, apparent in his rendition of Iggy — a character reminiscent of Jeremy Merkin in The Hundred Hearts — a seemingly hapless schmuck, doggedly courting disdain in a world of endless self-promotion, and illusory reinvention, who quietly delivers a master class in integrity and dignity.  From one perspective, Iggy’s last day at work at the restaurant could not be more pathetic. He stubbornly insists on prepping the evening’s offering, and remaining at his post as host, maintaining rigid standards of hospitality, even though it is reasonably certain no guests will arrive. When, to his initial delight, a group of well-dressed business types do appear, it is not to eat but to inspect their new acquisition, and Iggy comes to understand that the buyer of the restaurant is, in fact, his wife’s lover. His humiliation, it seems, is complete. However, Iggy, rather magnificently, turns the tables on his disdainful guests. Ignatz Podbielski may be going down, but he provides, in the process, a virtuosic demonstration of the art of losing well. and, in the end, it is not he who is left with vague intuitions of an inadequate belief system and intimations of Mordor.

The characterization of Aniela, the Podbielski matriarch, and flag bearer for the immigrant dream of America, is somewhat less successful, and illustrates, perhaps, some of the dangers inherent in any attempt to fictionalize a revered family legend — the trademark Kowalksi “honeyed glow” teeters on the brink of sentimentality, and although hints of a deeper self do occasionally shine through, overall, the depiction of Aniela suffers from an excess of reverence. One can make the argument that this is fitting, representing, as she does, the triumph of the immigrant dream, an icon from an age when this dream was still pure and attainable,  a sort of personal family Statue of Liberty.  An icon’s strength, of course, comes from its surface beauty, and the faith and ideals it represents, and it is perhaps, simply rude, and somewhat misses the point,  to scratch the surface to peer at the plaster beneath. That being said, as a reader, one wishes to have known Aniela more deeply.

Beyond the obvious examination of the beginning and end of one immigrant family’s American dream, the homage to the possibilities America once offered, and the spirit, energy, and determination that were required to realize those possibilities, it is the overall atmosphere of the story which suggests the comparison to a funeral. An air of elegy, of quiet resignation and relinquishment, centred in the character of Iggy, pervades these pages — the sort of respectful sadness one feels in the presence of a once great but now fading hero. Respect, of course, is due, and must be paid, but, like an idea whose time is up, like a story which has run its course, like Angela’s restaurant, the American dream, as it once was, Kowalski seems to be saying, is dead. For the time being, the villains (or clowns, or, perhaps, villainous clowns) may have control of the plot, the energy, purpose, and possibility drained from the dream and its inhabitants, and pandemonium (in the original sense of the word) reigns.  For the time being? In a mischievous nod to the infinite potential of life and the power of the human spirit, Kowalski inserts an element of regeneration into this death notice — breaking the sourdough mother out of the closet in which it had been imprisoned throughout the period of the restaurant’s decline (tended only by the aging cook) and bearing it into the future in Iggy’s arms.  One suspects there may be something righteous yet bubbling in that cauldron.












Posted in New Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Casper, Claudia: The Mercy Journals


Casper, Claudia
The Mercy Journals
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016
Softcover, 231 pages

Claudia Casper is a Vancouver writer, who, over the last twenty years or so, has been making a name for herself with a series of well-regarded novels beginning with The Reconstruction (1996) followed by The Continuation of Love By Other Means (2003) and culminating (thus far) with her 2016 meditation on post-climate-change-induced- apocalypse life, The Mercy Journals.  Born in Toronto, an only child, the complexity of her familial situation eventually grew to encompass ten half-siblings, an observation which might be without significance for this post were it not for the psychological acuity  with which her characters are portrayed. (More about this later.) One suspects that this facility may have been honed in the trenches.

The organizing framework of the story, as the title suggests, is a series of journal entries made over a period of approximately 2 months during the spring of 2047 by the protagonist Allen Levy Quincy.  However, as we are informed at the outset, the journals were not discovered until 2072, twenty-five years after the last entry, and so, a complex chronology is proposed.  The overarching perspective is of a reader, who, by the dictates of time and space, must exist in a post-2072 future, presented with a narrative, which within the confines of the story is long since past, but in real time, actually represents a real reader’s near future.  Although this complexity demands some focus, and is, indeed, occasionally disorienting, it does provide an atmospheric distance, forcing the perspective above quotidian concerns and beyond individual lives: whatever the outcome, it has long since been decided.  One can’t help but speculate that this stance may reflect (consciously or otherwise) the recent turn in the climate-change narrative, the finality with which the scientific community has now declared that whatever the outcome, the advent of critical climate change has been long since decided — a shocking thought for a culture for whom all things (and in particular anti-climate change efforts) have been treated as endlessly negotiable.

The details of the demise of life as we know it and the establishment of Allen’s “post nation state world”  are delivered efficiently, sparingly, and without fanfare. The crisis itself is not the focus of this story.  Suffice to say that a chillingly familiar litany of premonitory events (rising oceans, drought, fires, new viruses, political instability, wars, failing economies) and the equally familiar inadequacy of the political response, led to the great “die off,” — “three and a half to four billion people, dead of starvation, thirst, illness, and war, all because of a change in the weather.” It was, as Allen explains, not so much the big things, that, in the end, precipitated the collapse. Progress was made in many of the areas that loom in the popular imagination as key climate change issues — fossil fuel extraction and use, airplane emissions, deforestation, and the acidification of oceans. However, as is true in any complex system whose remarkable built-in reserves of function have been exhausted, once the tipping point is reached, the inter-dependency of all components becomes glaringly apparent, and a cascading array of critical failures can be initiated by a minute alteration in any one of an almost infinite number of factors.  Thus, as Allen chronicles, an overwhelmed international governing body  found that “the small things got away from them” — plankton, bacteria, viruses, disruption of critical biochemical processes in the soil and food chain — all leading to  “nation-states collaps[ing] almost as fast as species became extinct,” and in an historical blink of an eye, the dominion of humans was over.

Returning to the essentials of the story, as mentioned earlier, we first meet the 58-year-old Allen Levy Quincy, in extremis, the first journal entry (March 9, 2047) a will of sorts, in which he enumerates the physical accoutrements of his spartan, post-apocalyptic existence in Canton #3 (formerly Seattle) although no beneficiaries are named. Sober for 18 years, he has recently returned to heavy drinking and is experiencing a death wish which materializes in the form of hallucinatory party worms, who beseech him to join them.  He has taken up journal writing in an attempt to re-stabilize. In his world, life is grey, its possibilities severely curtailed, the sunshine dangerous, food and heat scarce, travel difficult, energy consumption severely rationed and strictly regulated. A one child per couple reproductive sanction is in place. Angry mobs (climate vigilantes) have been known to inflict murderous justice on anyone found violating survival protocols laid out by the One World emergency global governing body. Spending is prioritized to provide essential health care and food to “as many people as possible,” and scientific research is restricted to that which impacts immediate survival. Allen, a Royal Military College of Kingston alumnus, and veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, served in Mexico as political unrest intensified and conflict over water resources escalated. Eerily, the Mexican “wall” is imagined pre-Donald Trump.  Allen has seen things no man should and fallout from his PTSD has cost him his marriage. When we first meet him he is essentially alone, his ex-wife dead of a new hanta virus variant, and two grown sons scattered, whereabouts unknown.  In a passably effective attempt to alleviate his psychological distress, Allen has shut down emotionally and created a minimalist life for himself, “a kind of monk’s existence minus the religion.” He works a menial job as a parking attendant, lives alone, focuses on remaining sober and experiencing the simple physical details of his life, his one extravagance a pair of pet goldfish.   As he explains it,

I shrank my life to an existence so small nothing important could penetrate.

Having worked so hard to establish this uneasy equilibrium, Allen finds it quickly torn asunder by the entry into his life of two powerful but opposing forces:  Ruby Blades, of the scarlet sandals, a new and at first glance, unlikely love interest, and his younger brother Leo.  Together, they are about to move his story forward. As her name, the colour of her shoes and her appetites suggest, Ruby is a force of nature and will preside over Allen’s gradual emotional re-awakening, his coming to terms with his past, and his re-engagement with life.  Leo, on the other hand, is an essentially negative force — a narcissistic, egocentric super-consumer, an enthusiastic proponent of the high-rolling habits and attitudes which contributed so significantly to the crisis.  He chafes mightily under his new, restricted lifestyle and finds no value in the idea of individual sacrifice for the greater good.  From this point on, Allen’s actions will be primarily guided by the generative aspects of Ruby’s influence, or the need to resist Leo’s destructiveness.

As a result of Ruby’s influence, and his brother’s prodding, Allen, in the company of Leo, and Leo’s stepson Griffin, attempts a return to the family cabin, far north on what was once Vancouver Island, Canada, partly in the hopes that he might find his sons there.  Journal #2, began in late April, 2047, deals with this quest to return to an Eden of sorts, and its repercussions. We rejoin Allen as he clings precariously to life after having been attacked by a cougar. This brutal encounter with nature has a profound effect as he experiences (possibly as a result of incipient infection) a mystical communion of sorts and, rather counter-intuitively, develops a protective fixation on the animal.  Eventually reaching the cabin, the party discovers it inhabited, not by Allen’s sons but by the young and pregnant Parker Leclerc. The four settle in to attempt to homestead and enjoy a somewhat uneasy survivalist idyll. There is trouble in paradise, however, as the mental landscape remains precarious, with Allen pursuing interactions with the cougar, and Leo seemingly increasingly unhinged, his egocentricity and law of the jungle mentality the death knell for communal life.  The conflicts eventually escalate to an hallucinatory, climactic scene in which Allen murders his brother, and then, abandoning Parker and Griffin to their newly cleansed Eden, attempts a return to his canton and Ruby.

Although I am informed by people who know that quibbles can be had with the details of the downfall of the capitalist industrial complex as depicted in the story, the overall scenario is at least convincingly plausible. Plausible enough, and familiar enough, to establish a tone of unsettling imminence and dread in the minds of readers. As mentioned earlier, the focus of the story is not the horror (or spectacle) of the collapse, but an exploration of cause, perhaps buried deep in the human psyche, and the possibility of some way forward, into the ever after. With these thoughts in mind, there is much to admire in Casper’s writing. A particular strength is the compelling veracity with which she depicts personality through dialogue and observation.  Her characters are utterly believable, and interact in utterly believable ways. Dialogue flows naturally from character. The relationship between the brothers, Allen and Leo, is particularly insightful, and while, in the end, they come to represent archetypal characters, at no point do they lose their intense and particular humanity. Harking back to her own complex family situation, one can intuit that she has been a keen and astute observer of intricate human interactions, and this serves her well in her writing.  The representations, as well, of hallucinatory experiences (which can so easily go awry) are psychologically adroit, and handled with convincing technical aplomb.

Leo’s abrupt arrival in Allen’s life illuminates a deep sibling rivalry which has existed between the brothers  since childhood, a conflict whose origins were situated, Allen believes, in an early family tragedy, in real or perceived parental favouritism, and which has evolved into visceral resentment on Leo’s part.  It renders their dialogue taut with subliminal tensions as their emotional meters flicker erratically across the love/hate interface. The brothers are almost symmetrically opposed in their habits and sensibilities:  Allen stoic, self-sacrificing, monkish, and Leo hedonistic, narcissistic, self-serving and extravagant. As Allen says, “Leo was not someone I would have ever known if he wasn’t my brother.”  Their first interaction in the story, in which Leo is discovered subverting environmental laws to his benefit requiring Allen to save him from an angry mob, is typical of their relationship — Leo’s egocentrism forcing Allen into conflict over loyalties — save his brother, or save the planet? Although Allen acknowledges the power of the blood connection, his distrust of his brother’s innately  opportunistic nature runs deep, and his understanding of the destructive, irrational nature of Leo’s resentment is clear-sighted.   In a sense, Leo is Allen’s evil twin, society’s shadow self, entitlement juxtaposed with Allen’s sacrifice, the true significance of which only becomes apparent in the second part of this tale (Journal #2) as the story seeks to transcend individual lives and resonate on a more fundamental, archetypal level.

For those readers alert to literary nuances, the quest by Allen and Leo to return to the wilderness of their childhood reverberates with Eden-like associations, complete with a new Adam and Eve of sorts (Griffin and Parker) and ideals about a life lived in harmony with the natural world.  “Nirvana,” the name of their childhood sanctuary, encourages a widening of conceptual parameters to include Eastern thought, and possibly Jungian psychology and the idea of archetypal reckonings. In any case, as the quest for Nirvana and the shift, in Journal #2, of the narrative away from the city and the ways of man to the wilderness make obvious, the story is now centred in a mythic or psychological domain .

It also becomes obvious that Casper has gone to considerable trouble to set up the allegorical roles which Allen and Leo will assume, and to narrow the mythic focus to the old testament story of Cain and Abel. The deliberate parallels to the biblical story found in Allen and Leo’s relationship are the keys to the true nature of this tale and a source of hope for the reader which might otherwise seem to be absent.  Allusions to the story of Cain and Abel, and of the world’s first experience of sibling rivalry and murder, increase in the second journal.  A longstanding chill between the brothers arising from Leo’s belief that their parents favoured Allen, sets up a general parallel which is reinforced with multiple references to Allen as the good brother (Abel) and Leo, the jealous, self-centred one (Cain). This general correspondence is made explicit in an exchange between Allen and Leo, as Allen prods his younger brother about his intentions:

What are you up to Leo?                                                                                                        Up to?                                                                                                                                        Hey I’m your brother. Something’s going on.                                                                   But are you my keeper?

— an obvious echo of Cain’s testy rejoinder to God on being questioned regarding his brother’s whereabouts:

       I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper? (King James Bible Gen. 4.9)  

If any further evidence is required, it is noteworthy that Allen, in the final climactic fraternal confrontation, references the biblical mark of Cain, when he recounts seeing “a mark across his [Leo’s] temple” and, later, after having dispatched his brother, leaves us with the final words, “I am marked, but I have survived.”      

Having deduced a clear and deliberate parallel between the old testament account of Cain and Abel and Casper’s story of the Quincy brothers, the reader is left with the task of interpreting the reversal of the brother’s roles.  In the biblical story, both brothers offered a sacrifice to God, and God favoured Abel’s offering. Cain, in a fit of jealous resentment kills Abel, thus committing the first murder and ushering evil into the world. However, in The Mercy Journals, it is Allen (the good brother) who, in order to protect Parker and Griffin, and, by extension, the new Eden, kills Leo (the evil sibling). As suggested earlier, one can interpret Leo as Allen’s evil twin. In fact, when Allen asks the universe for a sign to indicate he should not kill his brother, he refers to this act as “a wager made in a mirror (…) — twins winking.” In a larger sense, the two brothers represent the light and dark of human nature, the self and shadow of society.  From this perspective, Allen’s murder of Leo is a triumph of light over dark, a renunciation and conquest of the materially greedy, self-interested, planet-destroying elements of our human natures.  It is not insignificant that, according to the terms of their parents’ will, assets were to be divided evenly, but, should irreconcilable differences between the brothers arise, Leo was to receive the material effects while Allen inherited the land. Destruction of the planet would seem to qualify as an irreconcilable difference, and Allen’s murder of  Leo can be interpreted as the defeat of materialistic consumerism so necessary for the salvation of the natural world.

There is considerable support for this allegorical interpretation in the story itself.  Allen’s enhanced role is hinted at early when he admits to having a sense that he is alive for a reason, and that, perhaps, fate has chosen him for a specific purpose. This idea, though, is so deftly anchored in the more mundane probabilities of PTSD delusion or related psychosis that it is only in retrospect that one recognizes its premonitory aspect. However, as Allen prepares to confront his brother, there is also reference to “wrestling titans, frozen in time,” and later, in a nice bit of pathetic fallacy, as the final confrontation looms, and as the wind “pushes” Allen towards his sibling, the elemental nature of the conflict is mirrored in the landscape.

Wind blasted across the field and grabbed the trees on the edges and shook them, making their tops fly back and forth like the heads of children being shaken to death.

The clincher, so to speak, arrives as Allen admits to planning Leo’s demise, musing that he will

Murder murder with murder

in other words, reverse the first evil of the world — consuming greed and self-interest, personified in Leo/Cain — by destroying it. As Allen notes, as a result of his confrontation with his dark twin, he was marked, but he survived. So may we all.








Posted in New Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Barwin, Gary: Yiddish for Pirates

Yiddish for PiratesBarwin, Gary
Yiddish for Pirates
Random House Canada, 2016
337 pages

For someone who considers herself at least somewhat versed in the Canadian writing and arts scene, I am mystified as to how it could be that I had not previously known of Gary Barwin. A veritable polyglottal polymath, both a poet and a one-man band, an uber-menschian everyman, his curriculum vitae includes a PhD in music composition, other and various degrees in education, creative writing, English and the fine arts, a command of at least three languages, multi-level teaching experience, including work with at-risk street youth, and writer-in-residencies at Western University and the London Public Library. In his spare time, it seems, he freelances as a writer and editor, creative writing workshop leader, and music and literary festival performer.  Described elsewhere as a “multifarious experimental scribe and noted small-press denizen,” he is also a writer of critically recognized children’s books and volumes of poetry.

The central premise of this, his latest oeuvre — that a 500-year-old, multilingual parrot, who may or may not have been splashed  by the eternal-life-giving waters of the fountain of youth, has deigned to entertain you with the tale of his most significant other, Moishe, (an expatriate Lithuanian Jew, turned pirate, on the run from the Spanish Inquisition) and their riotous adventures plying the Ocean Sea and beyond — may or may not intrigue you, depending on your relationship with the rational. I have chosen to be charmed.  To be more precise, I had no choice.

                                       There’s no greater ache than an untold story…   

If, as Aaron the parrot (apparently versed in Angelou) opines, “there’s no greater ache than an untold story,” then he must have been one sore bird. The adventures of pirate and parrot that spill from his articulate beak are almost endless and endlessly varied.  In fact, the word “story”cannot quite contain the contents of the book — imagine that proverbial sack of  weasels with the word “STORY” imprinted across its front. Now add the cartoon action — frantic squirms and wiggles and bulges and shrieks, the occasional tooth or claw piercing the fabric. Now you have some idea of the relationship between this Barwin opus and the general idea of “a story.”

But, to begin at the beginning;

Fin-de-siecle Europe (fin de 15th siecle, to be precise) was a dangerous, turbulent time, particularly if you were Jewish or a resident of what was about to be labelled the new world.  The Spanish Inquisition was in full swing, and the murderous and acquisitive Ferdinand and  Isabella of Spain were busy expanding their horizons in search of new lands to plunder whilst, simultaneously, aided by the insane Torquemada,  inquiring into the religious sensibilities of their subjects. Those deemed insufficiently christian were purged in ways that seem, in hindsight, even considering the tenor of the times, remarkably unchristian.

Those alert to such details will immediately note the enchanted quality of Moishe’s beginnings  — a hint, perhaps, of his destiny.  Raped in the midst of a pogrom, his young mother died shortly after childbirth, the baby thrown into a river, only to be rescued by a young Jewess.  Named “Moishe,” or “Moses” meaning “he who is drawn from water,” the biblical parallels for his beginnings are obvious. And, indeed, many of his early adventures involve him pushing, pulling, and floating his people towards a promised land. With a head full of ideas too big for his tiny shtetl in Vilnius, Lithuania, the fourteen-year-old Moishe runs away with dreams of exploring the world, taking with him only a few necessities, two silver coins, and a mysterious book he found hidden in his parents’ bedroom.  Finding work on a ship sailing to Portugal, Moishe meets his lifetime companion and voice, a multilingual African grey parrot he names Aaron (biblically, the brother of Moses, and his spokesperson, or in this case, spokesbird). Initially handicapped by his limited ability with language  (basic Yiddish only) Moishe is, early on in their adventures in Portugal and Spain, entirely dependent on Aaron, whose excellent command of both Yiddish and Spanish allows them safe passage through many tricky situations in which it was best not to be identified as Jewish. In this way, Aaron does speak for Moishe, as he does again when he tells us his story.

Moishe’s wanderlust has led him, somewhat inadvertently, into perhaps the most dangerous situation he might find himself at the time — a young, unprotected Jewish boy,  wandering through Spain and Portugal at the height of the Inquisition’s insanity. He quickly becomes embroiled in an effort to save a small band of Jews and their precious, ancient books, in the process falling in life-long love with Sarah, one member of this band. Betrayed by his ship’s captain, witness to the grisly extremes of the Inquisition, cruelly separated from his newfound love, a victim of theft and of violence,  Moishe, the little dreamer, is soon taught a thing or two about pain, grief, power and human nature by the world he had been so anxious to explore.

During one of their many and varied adventures at sea, Moishe and Aaron cross paths with Christopher Columbus, here a bumbling quixotic character who wafts in and out of the story from this point on, and, ultimately, is responsible for Moishe and Aaron’s further adventures in the New World, as they accompany him on his quest, in 1492, to find a westerly sea route to China. Unimpressed, as a result of his experiences, with the “civilized,” world, Moishe, is, very soon, disabused of the notion that goodness might be a matter of geography, or that he can leave greed, cruelty, and injustice behind in the old world. Appalled by atrocities committed by the Spanish against the native Bahamian population, and hopelessly separated from his one true love, he rejects civilization outright, and becomes a pirate.

Moishe and Aaron’s final great adventure begins when Moishe decides that, since they are in the neighbourhood anyway, they should try to locate the fabled fountain of youth. Success in this venture, it seems, requires the acquisition of five secret and mysterious books, allusions to which have popped up throughout the story, and much convoluted adventuring results from the attempt to do so.   Are they successful?  I won’t give it away, but some insight may be gained from the fact that Aaron, self-proclaimed inseparable companion to Moishe,  is left, five hundred years later, to tell the story.

Considering the most enticing topics for discussion in a review of this book, one is confounded by an embarrassment of riches — the wondrous verve and exuberance of the  language, the many and varied literary, cultural and pop cultural allusions and enticing biblical, talmudic, and alchemical references and their possible significance, the examination of otherness, the significance of the sea, the wry and world-weary humour, the meditation on the importance of story… I could go on.

Let’s start with the language. As the title implies, Barwin makes ample use of Yiddish in the book, and the text is peppered with Yiddish expressions, some translated, some not. I must say, there is something particularly infectious about Yiddish and one side-effect of reading the story may be that your own speech becomes, as mine has, colonized with these idioms, to the mystification of your family and friends. Barwin has noted elsewhere “There’s something really energizing about an admixture of languages in one sentence. It’s a vibrant polyphonic or polyrhythmic music. A lively dialogue.” Indeed it is! Pursuing the musical reference, beyond the multilingual aspects of the writing, the next quality of note is the rhythm — sentences that careen across the page with unstoppable momentum, beats that cannot be denied.  Add, now, a razor-sharp ability to capture the  essence of a thing in a few choice words, and a grand, rule-shaming, lexicographical derring-do, and you’ve got — well, what you’ve got is a very beguiling mix. Consider, for example, Aaron’s first impressions upon entering the great Spanish church, the Catedral de Sevilla:

Even the dried-out beef-jerky soul of an alter kaker parrot became dazed by the intoxicating lotus-scented pong of Mother Church in such a Xanadu of thurible-fumed fantasmagoria.

I anticipate little push-back when I note that writing a  sentence like that requires chutzpah.

Further consider this description of an encounter in a pub:

Columbus had already called for food and drink from the barmaid who, it seemed, had been sewn together some time ago from old leather and duck meat.

To the exuberance and humour, we can add moments of admirable precision, depth, and compression, as when the social elites are described as being “buoyed by the jewelled palanquin of privilege,” (the longer one allows that image to inhabit one’s imagination, the more apt it becomes) or the quick sketch of the enormous and powerful draft horses of the wealthy  “dressed in silks and resembling cantering four-poster beds.”

The predominant tone of the work is one of a tongue-in-cheek, swashbuckling good yarn, a sailor’s jig of a story, full of the self-deprecating and ironic humour of the oppressed. However, when Aaron, in his preliminary remarks, suggests to a young boy that he “bench [his] fat little oysgepasheter Cape Horn tuches down on that chair and listen to my beaking,”  he has far more than a slapstick tale of adventure to tell. Barwin is going after life here, the whole story, in all its glory, ugliness and pain, and uses the innocence and humour of the pirate adventure trope to pull unwitting readers closer to the heart of life’s tragedy and grief than might otherwise be possible. You’ve been warned. One minute one is rollicking along on the horns of a fine and funny adventure, secure in the belief that one’s hero must, for stylistic and genre-related purposes, prevail, and before one knows it, or can mount any kind of emotional defense, one finds one has been rollicked right into the middle of, for example, an execution scene from the Spanish Inquisition, where with a slight uptick in tension and contrast, slapdash slapstick turns macabre and lunatic, from madcap to simply mad. Barwin has a fine sense of the limits of his readers’ capacity for the terrors and horrors of human history and before things get too sobering — slap, dash, a good joke, and, if necessary, a little deus et machina, and one is whisked off to the next adventure. The near-brush with the dark-side, however, leaves a slow-fading after- image, a sombre counter-point to all the kibbitzing, and thus the story acquires a depth and poignancy that transcends its style.

Books, and the function and importance of story are ideas which infuse the work. The five mysterious volumes, which, purportedly, hold the key to the location of the fountain of youth, and thus eternal life, can clearly be associated with the Pentateuch of the Old Testament and Torah.  They, along with the five section titles of the novel, Air, Fire, Water, Land, and Quintessence, trail enticing alchemical, and kabbalistic associations, which are sadly, mostly beyond my ken. However, even the uninitiated can divine that an examination of the nature of existence, and the meaning of life, may lie at the heart of this work. Throughout, the primacy of the story prevails, and, indeed, ample suggestions are given that an understanding of story is the key to life everlasting.  Very early in the tale, Moishe’s adoptive father explains to his son that “The world (…) was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again.” He proceeds, more specifically, to point out that, “At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever.” The key, purportedly, to the location of the fountain of youth lies within the ancient books — and, remembering that it is stories that inhabit books,  perhaps the interpretation of this is meant to be more literal than the seekers suspect. Remember, as well, that Moishe has come to life in our imaginations (and in that of Aaron’s young fictional audience) because Aaron tells us his story. Further developing this idea of the story, the book is populated with more or less subtle allusions to many other great stories.  Beyond the obvious biblical and talmudic references, one can find the voices of Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Joseph Conrad, Huxley, Wilde, Angelou, and Leonard Cohen (and no doubt many others) singing within these pages. The overall effect is the sense that all our great stories are connected in a manner reminiscent of some of Northrop Frye’s ideas about an educated imagination, and alive and well in the world, retelling themselves, infinitely, in large and small ways.

This writing bridges the usual divide that exists between levels of life and thought — the philosophical (the meaning and nature of existence) the imaginative life of the mind (stories of identity and quest) and the far muckier absurdity of everyday life.  It manages to exist in all three simultaneously, and with relish. Above all, it is a great, joyful celebration of our human capacity for story, and the magnificent collection we have amassed thus far.


Some further resources:

A brief Yiddish glossary provided by the author on his serifofnottingham blog
(Apparently a complete glossary is planned at a later date.)

Barwin, Gary. Pirate stories, Shalom Village, memory and Yiddish. Hamilton Jewish News. April 2016.












Posted in New Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Wiebe, Rudy: Come Back

WiebeWiebe, Rudy
Come Back
Knopf Canada, 2014
HC 268 pages

Western Canadian writer Rudy Wiebe’s latest novel, Come Back is a searing, psychologically rich cri de coeur — an elderly father’s confused, enraged, heartbroken appeal to the universe to find some meaning in his young son’s suicide, and finally, and belatedly, an attempt to address his own sense of inadequacy, its role in the 25-year old tragedy, the accompanying guilt, and to find some peace.

Hal (Helmut) Wiens is, in fact, a character from Wiebe’s first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many, an 8-year-old Mennonite boy in that story, but now a 75-year-old retired university English professor, living in Edmonton, Alberta.  His Mennonite upbringing is still a strong influence in his life, and in the story — from the numerous references to Low German, the oral language of his childhood, the deep familiarity with scripture, and the close-knit family structure, to a certain reserved hardiness. Hal has, 7 months ago, lost his beloved wife of 50 years, Yolanda. His grown children, a son (Dennis) and daughter (Miriam) are devoted but separated geographically — one in Toronto and one in Vancouver — with families of their own. Although bereft, Hal seems to be coping, taking refuge in routine structure and, especially, in daily visits to the local coffee shop, the Double Cup, where he enjoys observing the “passing show” of the world outside, and the company of his friend Owl, an indigent Dene man whose opinions and insights Hal has come to respect and value.  Presaged by an unusual gathering of four ravens nearby, which, as Owl observes, is “no joke,” and an image of children vanishing from Hal’s sight along the street, this rickety veil of normalcy is ripped asunder one sunny day in late April when Hal catches a glimpse, through the coffee shop widow, of a tall young man  wearing a bright orange down-filled jacket.  Exploding into the street in excitement and anguish, he races through an intersection, leaving traffic carnage in his wake, in pursuit of the apparition, shouting the name “Gabriel,” but, to his despair, loses the man in the crowds.  Described in short, rapid fire sequences, mayhem erupting on all sides,  his breathless desperation pathetic in the truest sense of the word, this scene reveals Hal’s emotional and physical frailty, and engages the reader in his psychic trauma with remarkable force. The intensity of his reaction leaves little doubt that his relationship with this Gabriel is fraught, and one must radically readjust one’s expectations of the story from, perhaps, a meditation on grief and loss in respect to Yolanda, to an inquiry into this new mystery — one which only deepens and acquires ominous undertones, shortly thereafter, when it is revealed that Gabriel, the man glimpsed in the streets, is a second, long-dead son who, as a young man in his twenties, 25 years earlier, committed suicide at the family cottage.

It is a testament to Wiebe’s skill as a writer that he manages to build so much empathy for Hal within the first twenty or so pages that one now feels a real sense of  dread for his well-being.  The most logical explanation of the events is that grief over the loss of his spouse has unhinged him, that he is experiencing some sort of psychic breakdown, or that dementia has set in.  The presence of Owl however (who, as becomes apparent, represents an element of native spirituality and wisdom) and the unusual concatenation of ravens as a prelude to the event hint at higher metaphysical forces at work.

Whatever the provenance of the apparition, its arrival marks an important turning point in Hal’s approach to his son Gabriel’s suicide.  Although one’s sense of the family is of strength and closeness, there are indications that Hal carries a great burden of guilt about his role as Gabriel’s father — that he fears a lack of alertness, empathy, or a failure of action on his part may have contributed to the suicide.  A thoughtful, educated, and essentially honest man, Hal has no doubt been haunted by these questions for most of his life, but, as one learns early on, he has, since Yolanda’s death, determined to think on them no further.  Indeed, his quasi stream of consciousness musings are peppered with self-admonition, warning his thoughts away from anything that might, by association, lead to the topic of Gabriel. No doubt some instinct for psychic survival has informed him — an intuition that the old grief, and new, together, might undo him.

Reeling from the immediate aftermath of the appearance of his dead son, and the anguished reliving of the moments and days surrounding the suicide which the revenance  precipitated, Hal realizes that:

The Orange Downfill had ripped open what he locked down so carefully every day, every minute — Leo [his Argentinian son-in-law] would call it a barranca. That was it, exactly, a violent chasm torn through the eroded mountains of his life.

To his dismay, beyond the vivid clarity of the initial crisis, he can remember remarkably little about his time together with Gabriel. Had he neglected this quiet, shy child? Had he failed to notice, to guide, to support? Is he failing his child again by willfully ignoring all that is left of him — his true story? Hal interprets the vision to mean that he must, now, before it is too late, confront the truth of his son’s short life, to (as one epigraph hints) come  “face to face” with the enigma of his suicide, to try to understand Gabriel and his actions even if that means confronting his fears as a parent and inadequacies as a person.  It is time, as St Paul, (via the motto of Gabriel’s University of Alberta day planner) admonishes, to find

 whatsoever things are true, [whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise] think on these things.

In practical terms, this means he must descend into the basement of his home to, finally, after twenty-five  years, explore a collection of Gabriel’s diaries and miscellaneous writings, cataloged and stored there by Yolanda. In metaphorical, mythological and psychological terms, this signals a katabasis — a descent into memory/the underworld/the subconscious to rescue a loved one, to find wisdom, and more deeply, to confront the mystery of death and consider the nature of time and the meaning of human life.

And so, the story within the story begins:  Hal’s  trek to the underworld, a confrontation with his shadow which he has been avoiding for twenty-five years, as he forces himself to try to piece together, from the shards of his own memory and Gabriel’s sparse notes, a  belated, but true understanding of his dead son. There are monsters waiting, and (partial and imperfect) understanding is hard-won and comes with pain and regret.  Had he repressed awareness of the potential for suicide? Possibly. Had he missed or misread patterns and signs? Most definitely. Were his attempts to help his son misguided and uninformed?  Often. Was his (self-centred?) engagement with and ease in the outer world a reproach to his son? Maybe. If he had been home that fateful day would his son still be alive? Impossible to say.

In as much as he had allowed himself to consider these things at all, Hal had always identified an encounter between the then twenty-four-year old Gabe and Ailsa, the thirteen-year-old daughter of friends, as the beginning of the troubles that culminated in his suicide.  Described by Hal as “two months a teen” and, therefore,  “unimaginably dangerous,” anxious to explore her developing sexual powers, Ailsa briefly flirted with this shy, older friend of her family, resulting in a disastrous, obsessive romantic fixation on Gabe’s part, which was, ultimately, unrequited and never acted upon.  This situation dominates much of Gabriel’s diary writing thereafter and, within months, he had driven  to Aspen Creek, the family cottage, and asphyxiated himself with carbon monoxide in the family’s pickup truck. One significant realization for Hal is that, although the situation with Ailsa certainly may have initiated Gabriel’s final downward spiral, in fact, the pattern of infatuation with young girls had begun much earlier — in retrospect, had been hiding in plain sight — with boyhood fixations on young Russian gymnasts, which, at the time, Hal had airily dismissed as emotional growing pains. Gabriel, had, however, been acutely aware of the pattern and there is evidence of a heroic struggle on his part to come to terms with himself, to find some workable way to be in the world. Employing strategies perhaps absorbed from his literary father, he had, as his diaries indicate, turned to literature and the cinema, over and over again, in a search of understanding and guidance — the Bible (Songs of Solomon) Rilke (First Elegies) Stendhal’s (De L’Amour) Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles) Donne, Nabokov, and the movie Spring Symphony, are a few of the many works mentioned. In one heartbreaking segment (considering the fact that Hal and the reader encounter it long after the fact of Gabriel’s suicide) he notes:

 I will have faith, not necessarily in any particular future but faith that to remain as I am is a good and worthy thing. Things will work out, life goes on. Caring love survives.

Pedophilia is a radioactive word, and one which hovers uncomfortably around Gabriel’s story.  Tension rises considerably as Hal discovers Gabriel’s accounts of quasi-stalker-like behaviour in regards to Ailsa, (following her home from school in his car, secretly observing her life) and mild sexual fantasies.  Ultimately, however, Gabriel’s infatuation with the girl is never acted upon, and is not even, necessarily, sexual in nature.  Wiebe’s approach to the issue is deeply compassionate, and there is evidence, in Gabe’s diaries, of his struggle to understand himself. At one point he wonders if, perhaps, Ailsa’s fascination can be explained by the associations her age carries with that time in his own life — a time untroubled by self-doubt, depression, failure and “aloneness”.  Gabriel’s sexuality is not straightforward, and never clarified

Slowly, Hal begins to stitch together a picture of a very troubled young man, thoughtful, intelligent, loving and well-meaning, but hyper-aware of, and tortured by, his inability to engage with the world, enervated and depressed, suffering from a pervasive sense of alienation and meaninglessness, self-identified as, not lonely, but “alone,” sensitive about his difference, and his obsessive tendencies but unable to act to change things. Hal, a man with a fundamentally different nature, reading his dead son’s fragmentary thoughts, twenty-five years later, is often only baffled and frustrated by Gabriel’s chronic inability to engage with the world, to act in his own interest, his lack of resilience — Hal’s more dynamic personality continuously finding opportunities, alternative pathways, and positive interpretations where Gabriel, apparently, found none. He does come to gradually appreciate, however, the effort that Gabriel did make, and the grinding exhaustion which eventually led to his refusal to continue.

Not only must Hal make personal peace with the past, he must also reconcile his son’s fate with his understanding of the universe. By nature and by upbringing, Hal abhors the idea of suicide. Fundamentalist members of his extended Mennonite family were rendered awkward and uncertain at Gabriel’s funeral — unable to find ways, beyond their simple presence, to comfort one of their own who had, as they believed, most certainly lost his son to the flames of hell. Hal’s approach to religion is broader and more nuanced, and, perhaps, had been somewhat perfunctory during his active, adult years. But now, seated as he is, on the edge of eternity himself, addressing the tragedy of his son’s life and death, he is, belatedly, forced to reconfigure his sense of a spiritual universe. The idea of reincarnation is tangentially explored as Hal looks to his friend Owl for help in interpreting the meaning of Gabriel’s fleeting reappearance in his physical world. Noting that the vision appeared to be a young man in his twenties and that Gabriel was 24 when he died, 25-years-ago, Owl tells Hal of stories, imperfectly remembered from his childhood, of the souls of those who died too young being transferred  to those being born.  He can, however, offer no further insights — this thread of cultural knowledge made tenuous by the cultural upheavals of his own society.  There is, further, a tantalizing correspondence between the death in WWII, of Hal’s beloved older brother,  Thomas, and Gabriel’s birth, 16 years, to the day (January 28) later, but, in the end, nothing further is made of this.  A very practical suggestion from Owl that the North Saskatchewan River ravines that transected the city might be a fruitful place to search for the mysterious young man in the orange downfill leads Hal to reflect on the symbolic idea of “river”

always ambivalent; it corresponds to the creative power of both nature and time. On the one hand it signifies fertility and life, the progressive irrigation of the soil; and on the other hand it stands for the irreversible passage of time and, in consequence, for a sense of gathering loss…

Rivers, in fact, permeate the story, and  Hal and Owl’s descent into the city’s river ravines indicates a move toward acknowledgement and an attempt to reconcile these two fundamental forces of life and lays bare the undercurrents of Hal’s ultimate quest and that of the novel itself. The search proves fruitless and leaves Hal convinced that he need look no further for Gabriel’s reincarnation– that the revenant was not, in fact, physical.

What is one to make, then, of Hal’s vision of his dead son?  His ongoing excavations of his memories reveal that, in fact, this was not the first time that Gabriel had made his presence known in the years since his death — two distinct incidents are mentioned.  The first was a visitation experienced by Yolanda, comforting in nature, in which she felt herself encircled in her dead son’s embrace, and reassured that he was alright. Hal, as well, had a very similar experience, approximately ten years after Gabriel’s death. Both incidents, entirely subjective, are open to interpretation, as is the most recent. However, the fact that Owl also saw a man in an orange downfill on the street that day, and the unusual gathering of the ravens, gives the latest appearance greater portent.  Add to this the fact that Hal discovers the same date (April 28) circled in Gabe’s planner to mark an intended pilgrimage to the Oldman River, which he identifies as the best place to do “it.”  The exact nature of “it” remains ambiguous — perhaps suicide, or, perhaps a quest to rediscover his younger, true and happy self.  Significantly, amongst the artifacts preserved in Hal’s basement is a small shard of pottery, saved by Gabriel from a day spent with his father and a family friend, exploring the Oldman River’s eroded banks, suggesting, as well, the idea of excavation of the past, and of discovery.  Gabriel never made his pilgrimage — opting out at the last minute.  His spectral reappearance on the anniversary of its intended date can be interpreted as a message or plea to his father to engage in the psychic excavation and exploration required to discover the truth of his son’s life, before it is too late.  In the end, Hal does reach a sort of fitful peace with the past, comes to understand the courage of his son’s battle, and, in some sense, the reality of a life lived by one with a nature fundamentally different from his own. Also, and importantly, there is a sense of rightness to Hal’s belated witness to his son’s life, his excavation of his true story.

That Wiebe intended his story to have deeply spiritual and psychological dimensions, and to evoke the mysteries of life, love, and time, is clear from the number of correspondences, portents, signs and patterns that he embeds within it, some of which have already been mentioned. Beyond the wide-ranging survey of significant works of art which have wrestled with these ideas, and the many scriptural references, it is worth noting the strange coincidences of dates and in particular the number 28 (which, besides its whiff of moon magic and fertility, trails a whole host of mysterious mathematical, astronomical, religious and cultural associations)  January 28th, as mentioned, is the day of Thomas’s death and Gabriel’s birth, April 28 the day marked out by Gabe for the abandoned Oldman River quest and, also, the day on which the elderly Hal sees his vision of his son. As well, Gabriel’s sister’s wedding is postponed from September 21st to the 28th, as a result of her brother’s suicide.  Gabriel’s name, of course, carries with it associations with messages and revelations. The ravens function at an intersection of folklore, literature, Native spirituality and Jungian psychology, bringing together the ideas of spiritual guidance,  cosmic messages, and healing,  with those of warning, omens, and of  Jung’s shadow self — the dark side of the human psyche.

Old Man in Sorrow Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Old Man in Sorrow
Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The underlying sense of invisible connections, ineffable forces, and unseen influences, is very effectively supported by one particularly strong resonance: the early description of a Van Gogh painting, Old Man In Sorrow, viewed by Hal and Yolanda on a visit to the Winnipeg Art Gallery the day before Gabriel’s birth.  The sight of the painting caused the very pregnant Yolanda to “gasp aloud” and stare intently.  As Hal describes it:

“The ancient body bent forward into the agony of a question mark, seated in an orange — Orange — chair, worn ragged in blue and thick fingers clawed into eyes. Also named On the Threshold of Eternity.”

Wiebe has threaded the predominant colours in the picture — orange (in the omnipresent down-filled vest) and blue (in Gabriel’s bible, the ink of his earlier diary, and the colour of the pickup truck in which his body was found) throughout the novel — guide wires back to the key ideas of sorrow, age, time, and eternity.  As well, the picture acts as a portent, a cosmic comment on the repercussions of Gabriel’s birth, a sign that Gabe would cause Hal to question the universe and all its workings.  Compare this description of Hal as he begins his exploration of his dead son’s artifacts, in his basement, in his 75th year, to the description of the painting above:

He was alone in his basement. Bent, like a question mark on a worn wooden chair

–a cosmic meme, distilled in the work of a great artist and reverberating in the life of a man.

As mentioned in the introduction to this review, this is an intense work. Wiebe is playing for keeps  — addressing life’s essential questions with clear-eyed ferocity, attempting to come to terms with death and grief, with the idea of life as a procession of losses, with a god who would allow such things, and to take the measure of a human life against all of time, to see life, not through a mirror, but to stare the enigma in the face. It’s depths are hard won.  If one prefers the mirror, pass by.


Further Resources: An interview with Rudy Wiebe on CJSW Radio Writer’s  Block https://soundcloud.com/cjsw-90-9-fm/rudy-wiebe

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You’ve Seen It Before: Predictive Imagery in Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2013

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2013

As mentioned in the main review, Michael Crummey’s Sweetland is full of hints and suggestions of another reality beyond what we might consider the normal everyday — places which, as Moses, the protagonist notes, can’t be found on a map.  It is those people whose interaction with average, everyday, civilized life is not precisely average who seem to experience this other world most frequently.  Jesse, who, as Moses has come to understand, has an intensely personal internal existence, a “private landscape that surfaced now and then into the wider world,”  is one example. Queenie Coffin, the agoraphobe, perhaps another, and, of course, Moses himself, in his increasingly isolated and delirious existence on the deserted island.

While Crummey never pronounces directly on the issue, he does support this air of uncanny possibility, which pervades the novel, and unnerves the reader (in a way that promotes empathy with Moses’s experiences) in a number of ways.  One important strategy which contributes to this outcome is the use of predictive imagery — images encountered by the reader which later events in the story will mirror quite precisely.  One’s direct knowledge of key, tragic events, is foreshadowed with imagery.

The two strongest examples of this are the symmetries found, first for the story of Moses’s brother’s (Hollis’s) death — a defining moment in Moses’s life, which contains a key secret which is gradually revealed in the story, and, secondly, in the description of Jesse sleeping, which portends the details of his eventual death.

The Death of Hollis:

His temporary work as a deckhand on a schooner shipping goods along the coast got Moses involved in an unlikely tourism initiative which involved introducing wild buffalo to Newfoundland in the hopes of attracting more big game hunters.  His boat was contracted to move the animals from Cape Breton to the uninhabited island of Little Sweetland.  In the chaotic process of loading the animals, a cow falls into the sea and drowns, her last moments described from Moses’s memory, as he tells the story to Jesse:

She went down slowly at first, submerging like a boat taking on water.  But once she was under she sank like a stone, as though she was on a line and being dragged down from below. That dark face staring up at Sweetland on the surface, eyes wide, bubbles streaming from the massive nostrils. He could see her descending through the clear water for a long, long time (…) Lost sight of her after awhile. (page 38)

Later, on a fishing trip together, Jesse teases the story of Hollis’s drowning from Moses, a subject Moses has been touchily reticent about.  According to this story, Hollis drowned when he fell into and became tangled in a trawl line of a net, heavy with fish, and was dragged overboard.  Moses, in a moment of bad judgement, thinking he needed to release the terrible tension of the rope straining against the net full of fish, within which his brother was entangled, cut the line. In retrospect, it was the worst thing he could have done, as, now with nothing to prevent it, Hollis is pulled, inexorably, down into the depths by the weight of the net. As Moses describes it:

He could see the white of his brother’s face looking back up to the surface.  Hundreds of pounds of fish on the trawl and the weight of it pulling Hollis down and down into that black. (page 134)

Although Moses’s completely understandable comment that, “I’d have done it all different (…) If I had my time back.” is eventually appreciated for its loaded content, this image carries an accurate image of Hollis’s death, as Moses experienced it, and which the readers  have already encountered in the death of the cow.  One can’t help but admire Crummey’s writerly frugality when one notices, besides its predictive function, the beautiful exactness of this description as a metaphor for the way time (the ocean) swallows up a human life.  The dead remain visible, although receding, in the memories of others, for quite some time, but, eventually, all disappear into the past.

Photo by:  Kerry Riley, 2014

Photo by: Kerry Riley, 2014

Jesse’s Death:

In a second striking example of this predictive imagery, Moses takes a moment at the end of a visit  to check in, tenderly, on his sleeping nephew, whom he finds, fast asleep, in a pair of old pyjamas, far too small, but which he has refused to give up:

The pyjamas made him look hopelessly vulnerable in his bed, his limbs like pale shoots growing out of the fabric, the smooth expanse of his belly exposed.  The little well of the navel a thimbleful of darkness.  Jesse’s face was turned toward the door but angled unnaturally up toward the headboard.  He looked like he’d fallen from a height, dropped from a rooftop or a headland and come to rest in that mangled posture.  Sweetland wanted to ease the boy’s arms back down at his sides, to straighten the leg crooked against the wall.  He wanted to lie down with the boy awhile and listen to him breathe. (page 126)

In the frantic search for Jesse, who has gone missing after it becomes known that Moses has capitulated to the relocation, his mangled body is first seen by Moses floating like flotsam, crashing against the rocks at the base of an ocean cliff. Barry Priddle, of the Priddle brothers, and Moses manage to scrabble down the cliff because of a precarious ladder  drilled into the rock, an artifact from an old landing pad, but they cannot lift Jesse’s body back up to the top.  Moses is left tied to the ladder, cradling Jesse’s body protectively while Barry races for help. (pages 154- 157).

The past and the future are linked through imagery, and both Moses and the reader have foreseen this tragedy.

Posted in New Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Crummey, Michael: Sweetland

Sweetland CrummeyCrummey, Michael
Doubleday Canada, 2014
HC, 318 pages

Michael Crummey, now firmly established as one of our pre-eminent Canadian writers, has, throughout his career, explored, with extraordinary depth of perception, the peculiar and particular emotional ache that arises from our human awareness of the passage of time, and the eternal sadness of lost things.  It is not nostalgia, precisely; it is far grander and deeper than that. It encompasses not just the yearning for a particular time past, but all times past, and, not just the yearning of an individual but a sort of collective regretful reverence, tied inextricably but not necessarily straightforwardly, to our own individual sense of mortality, and the weirdness of possessing a consciousness that allows us to contemplate it.  This connection between our own mortality, and our relationship to, and acceptance of, the inevitable cycles of birth, life and death is explored in Crummey’s latest novel, Sweetland, in which the end of an individual life (that of Moses Sweetland) and the end of a way of life (in Newfoundland’s outports) brilliantly coalesce in a splendid and sombre story.

Moses Sweetland, irascible, taciturn, stubborn, loyal and heroic, is sixty-nine years old, and on the cusp of his seventh age.  An elder of the tiny (population ~90) Newfoundland outport community of Chance Cove, on the island of Sweetland, named after his ancestors who arrived two centuries ago,  he is in the difficult position of being forced by life to contemplate not only his own denouement, but that of his community as well.  His life story is the story of his place, Newfoundland, picking up it’s history from about the time that Crummey’s last novel Galore (a Canadian masterpiece!) left off, and carrying into the present day.

The early death of their father left Moses and his brother Hollis struggling to support the family with subsistence fishing.  There is the obligatory youthful trip to Toronto in search of “good money” which ends catastrophically in an industrial accident which disfigured Moses, and sent him back to Newfoundland, where he worked as a fisherman until the 1992 moratorium on cod. This was followed by a period as a lighthouse keeper, until that was automated, at which point he drifted into retirement. Inexorable change, it seems, has been nipping at Moses’s heels all his life.  Never married, he lived with his mother until her death nine months prior to the opening of the story, surrounded by a family and community shaped and, in some cases warped, by the exigencies of life in the outports.

Moses’s immediate community includes his blind brother-in-law Pilgrim, who lives with his daughter Clara (Moses’s niece) and her possibly autistic son, Jesse. Other notables include Queenie Coffin, the chainsmoking, serial-romance-novel-reading, agorophobe, who plants a flower garden each spring by dumping a packet of seeds out of a window into a plot below, and Duke Fewer, who set up a mostly imaginary barbershop business in town after the cod moratorium, where a perpetual game of chess plays itself out over the course of the story.  There is Moses’s hopelessly hapless neighbour Loveless, who can’t take care of anything, including himself. Loveless’s sister Sara, although deceased, still makes her presence felt, as does Ruth, Moses’s sister and Clara’s mother, deceased as well.  The Priddle brothers, albeit somewhat peripheral characters, are nonetheless sketched impeccably — a pair of rogue bachelor brothers most often making big money somewhere “away” and living wildly but returning sporadically to disrupt the community and whose essential natures teeter precariously and unpredictably between dangerous and heroic. Crummey’s approach to characterization might be described as “compassionate hilarious,” and he is unparallelled in his ability reveal characters from the inside-out,  with extraordinary economy, who, once encountered by the reader, become permanent acquaintances. In the process, the essential heroism of the characters’ wry stoicism in the face of life’s tragedies, is celebrated — wryly, and without pretension or caricaturization.

The story opens with the little community facing a death blow.  The government, a gimlet eye on unsustainable costs, has offered a relocation package to the residents of Sweetland: a minimum payment of $100,000 per family to relocate anywhere in the province, the only catch being that acceptance of the deal must be unanimous. Everyone must go. A government man appears at Moses’s door in a blinding blaze of morning light, like an angel messenger from the future. The intruder reveals his alien nature immediately by knocking at the front door, and the metaphorical distance between Chance Cove and the mainland is established with a few words about tea:

“Cup of tea?”

“You don’t have coffee by any chance?”

“I got instant.”

“Tea is fine.”

The agent has arrived to inform Moses that one of the three remaining dissenting households has capitulated, leaving only Moses and his neighbour Loveless obstructing the deal. The news is clearly a blow to Moses. Loveless, as his name might suggest, and whose peculiar nature is ascribed to a pint of kerosene he drank as a baby, can hardly be considered an asset in a battle against the forces of change. Predictably, Loveless does not hold out long. The now ironically named Moses stands as the last obstacle on his people’s path to the promised land.  The deadline for a final decision is September. The outcome is never really in doubt.

Moses is under considerable pressure to accept the deal both from community members and his immediate family. He has, apparently, been finding mysterious, anonymous, threatening letters in his home, the messages amateurishly cut and pasted from magazine text, and there are rumours of threats to burn him out.  When Keith Priddle, one of the aforementioned Priddle brothers, notes that “The old man says he’s going to cut off your nuts with a fish knife, you don’t sign,” it is treated as a joke, but there is an element of real threat. Perhaps most eerily, Moses begins to find mutilated rabbit heads — first nailed to a tree near one of his snares, and later, nailed to his stagehead (a sort of fisherman’s dock) which does, later, mysteriously burn.

Stubborn and independent, but not stupid, Moses is rattled, but not swayed by the pressure. He has his own reasons for wanting to stay, which mostly have to do with loyalty and an only dimly perceived need for meaning in his own life.  On a larger register, he feels a deep sense of attachment and reverence for the island, its history and the lives of the people who have lived there, and is resistant to the idea that they will just disappear in the rush of time.  Approaching his eighth decade, his own life history is more closed allied with the dead of the island than the living, and with no children to connect him to the future, the meaning of his own life resides in the history of his place. He worries about the graves of the community’s ancestors and the inevitable disintegration and dispersal of the island’s collective memory that the relocation will bring.  As Crummey has taken some pains to establish (not the least that the island shares his name) in many ways Moses is the island, not in a geological sense, but in a human, historical sense. Not particularly emotionally self-aware, it is Moses’s tragedy to be struggling to come to terms with the meaning of his own life at a time when the place where he has built this meaning, and where it most securely resides is, itself, dying.

There is one tenuous connection to the future which almost allows Moses to move forward, and to carry his story to a new place and this is his young grand-nephew Jesse, with whom he has developed a special relationship. In a moment of rashness, however, he promised Jesse that he would never have to leave the island as long as Moses had anything to do with it, and, initially, it is loyalty to this promise that further fuels Moses’s determination to defy the government offer, and community pressure.

But, as Pilgrim puts it rather bluntly to Moses:

You’re an old man …And what’s Jesse going to have here once we goes?… Clara’s going to be left alone with the youngster is what’s going to happen.  She’ve got a chance to go somewhere with a bit of money to see the boy looked after. And you’re going to fuck it up.

Forced to the realization that he is not acting in Jesse’s best interests, Moses, does, finally, capitulate and signs the agreement.  This flicker of future possibility, however, is dramatically crushed almost immediately by a tragic accident, perhaps precipitated by Mose’s decision, which claims Jesse’s life, and in a strange and sad way, achieves Jesse’s goal of not leaving, and, darkly fulfills Moses’s promise.  Free now, of any external obligations, Moses’s allegiance lies firmly with his island, and the past, and, somewhat impulsively, but nonetheless ingeniously, he extricates himself from the relocation without jeopardizing it for the others by faking his own death and secretly returning to Sweetland.

In a brilliant evocation of the essential situation, and presage of what is to come, Mose’s. returning home one evening, from efforts on behalf of Loveless’s cow,

turned to see the cove glimmer in the last light, houses and windows glowing faintly orange and red, the colours fading and winking out as he watched.  There was no stopping it, he knew.  Days when the weather was roaring outside his mother would say, Stall as long as you like, sooner or later a body’s got to make a run for the outhouse.  The whole place was going under, and almost everyone it mattered to was already in the ground.

Here, in this passage, lies the essence of the book: a sharp appreciation of beauty, a blunt acknowledgment of truth, and a defiant humour. Although a hardy Newfoundland outporter, better equipped than most to survive in difficult conditions, at sixty-nine, Moses knows he’s going to die, and, on a deserted island, in winter, bereft of the most basic amenities, no doubt sooner than later, especially after, in an ill-considered moment, he jettisoned his boat, believing this would make his disappearance more believable.  But, like so many tragic heroes before him, he enters a beautiful, impossible battle, with courage, resourcefulness and dignity.  Moses’s decision to stay with his dead on the island  is not suicidal — he fights very hard for all of his allotted time.  It is, however, the beginning of a process of passing over, a relinquishing of the physical world, and the approximate last half of the book is devoted to the haunting realization of one man’s passage from a physical to a spiritual existence.  Like much of Crummey’s writing, this section has the air of close observation, as opposed to invention, and it was, therefore, not so surprising to learn part of the inspiration for Sweetland came from his experience watching his father succumb to terminal cancer (1).  We, here on this side of the divide, have names for Moses’s deterioration, as he tries to live alone on the island — delirium, bushed, cabin fever — indeed, the idea is part of our Canadian mythology, but whatever the genesis, it is clear that those in the process of cutting ties with the living spend more and more time “somewhere else.”  Early on, Moses begins to experience small slippages and inconsistencies in chronology, and forms attachments, and carries on conversations, first with the animal world, and then with the dead — bringing a portrait of a long dead uncle into the kitchen for company, and talking with his dead grandfather. His experiences become increasingly fantastical — he sees spectral lights in the deserted Coffin house (as did Jesse before him) believes that someone has resumed the game of chess still set up in Duke’s old barber shop, and is saved from being lost at sea in the fog (in an old boat of Loveless’s that he has resurrected) by ghostly music emanating from the boarded up church. There is a gradual and seamless incursion of mind and memory into the physical world until it is unclear, both for Moses and the reader, where the story resides. Moses reaction is stoical:

he held to what he’d chosen and managed to make a sort of peace with the bizarre incidents that had become a feature of his days, accepted the fact that some of the world he lived in couldn’t be found on a map

This “other world,” of which Moses finds himself increasingly an inhabitant, can be interpreted as the reader sees fit.  Crummey, however, very effectively creates an atmosphere which allows for the uncanny, without pronouncing upon it.  It begins as small  inconsistencies (with easy but unprovable explanations) — the provenance of the threat letters is never established, Jesse (symptom of his condition?) talks regularly with Moses’s dead brother Hollis, and conveys messages which Moses finds quite unsettling. Moses comes to recognize that Jesse has an intense internal reality which is inaccessible to others.  Crummey also uses imagery brilliantly but subtly to foreshadow key events in the story (more on this in a subsequent post) leaving readers with an unsettling sense of deja vu when the actual events are encountered.  And, always and everywhere — the ocean — it’s unfathomable depths and uncharted mysteries, dwarfing the doings of man.  There is a palpable sense of a reality far broader than our every day perceptions can encompass, although we sometimes catch a glimpse of it, and a fascinating evocation of the dilemma of having your perceptions and, therefore, experience, for whatever reasons, fail to align with your idea of the possible. Crummey makes you understand, through Moses, just how easy it might be to get lost, and how delicate a thing certainty is.

One lovely consequence of Moses living increasingly in his own mind and memory is that the reader comes to learn the stories of many of the characters introduced in the first half of the book in a far greater detail — including that of Moses himself, and his complicated relationship to his dead brother Hollis, and sister Ruth — lives of apparently simple people, which on the surface might seem easy to dismiss or categorize, but, in fact, contain astounding depths of perception, complexity, weakness, strength, emotion and endurance.  In a strange way, these musings, shared in the book, accomplish the fictional Moses’s aim — they deeply regard, honour and memorialize, in other words, give meaning, to the lives of those involved.  And, in this way, Moses jumps out of the story, and does the same for a lost way of life, and the very real people who lived it.

Close attention to the evocative, deeply sensate opening scene of Sweetland provides a succinct guide to the themes to be found therein, and presages the ending. Moses, on a trip to the mainland to gather firewood, has, on his way home, has been stranded on the water in fog.   His sight temporarily disadvantaged, he has cut his engine to drift awhile, every other sense keenly alert to the possibility of approaching vessels, but there is

just the lap of the waves against the hull for the longest time.  The wail of the foghorn on  Burnt Head

He heard them before he saw them. Voices in the fog, so indistinct he thought they might be imaginary.  An auditory hallucination, the mind trying to compensate for a sensory lack. The way a solitary man will start talking to furniture, left alone long enough.

Spooked him. Miles out on the water and that voice seeming to rise from the ocean itself.

The voice was, in fact, the desperate cry for help from a lifeboat full of abandoned Sri Lankan refugees, adrift on the ocean, which Moses, in his role as leader, protector, preserver, rescues and tows to land.  So, here we have, from the outset, the idea of a quest for, and the meaning of, home, of concealed realities, of beginnings and endings, the mind versus the external world, the skim of life across the surface of reality, and, all rolled into the ocean — deep time, existence, and the cycles of life.

Crummey is an adept at teasing out the points of intersection between the universal and the particular and personal, and has done so again, the Sweetland, with extraordinary effectiveness.  Within the intersecting portion of a Venn diagram composed of the circle of Crummey’s own experience with death, and that of the universal experience of time and mortality, lies the story of Moses Sweetland, and the island that bears his name.


1. http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/hazlitt/feature/company-dead-interview-michael-crummey

Further Resources:  Crummey, Michael: How I Wrote Sweetland

See also:

You’ve Seen It Before: Predictive Imagery in Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

Posted in New Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments