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.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