Archive for March, 2012

Why Men Lie, by Linden MacIntyre

March 26, 2012

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Linden MacIntyre has been one of Canada’s best-known television journalists for some time, but he added a new string to his bow in 2009 with the publication of his second novel, The Bishop’s Man. The story of a Cape Breton-born priest who discretely looks after sex scandals in the Church at his bishop’s behest, it won the Giller Prize and became a book club favorite (as the continuing visits to the review on this blog testify).

That novel actually was not about scandals in the Church (and disappointing, if you read it that way) but rather a study of the internal conflicts faced by Father Duncan MacAskill, the bishop’s man of the title. Father Duncan makes a return appearance here (as do a number of other characters) but his internal torments have been put to rest — in this novel, he is quietly going about his work serving the street people of downtown Toronto and emerges as the voice of reason and understanding for the cast of troubled people who populate this book.

The central character here is Duncan’s sister, Effie. She is a world-renowned expert in matters Celtic, apparently comfortably ensconced at work at the University of Toronto and equally comfortable at home in the trendy Annex district just north of the U of T campus. I say “apparently” because beneath the surface, Effie is avoiding dealing with her own versions of the tensions and conflicts that her brother faced in the previous novel.

They are all related to her Cape Breton upbringing, an abusive father, a collection of deaths and suicides — and her three ex-husbands, one now dead and two still living back home in Cape Breton. Those memories start to bubble their way to the surface on the platform of the St. George subway station when she runs into JC Campbell, another Cape Bretoner whom she has not seen in 20 years.

They fell silent briefly. She remembered that he’d taken a job with a television network in the United States. Something about his passport, she recalled; American employers loved the Canadian passport. It travelled better than their own because it was less likely to provoke an inconvenient attitude at certain border crossings. She recalled a drunken farewell party at her house. It was in the Beaches, so yes, it would have been 1977. Twenty years ago, 1977, the year of raised voices, slamming doors, her child cowering underneath the kitchen table. The farewell celebration was a kind of respite.

MacIntyre may be taking a risk in choosing to tell his story through the eyes of a woman (and he doesn’t entirely succeed), but this introduction early in the book also assures us that he is familiar with much of the territory. His own roots are in Cape Breton (his boyhood memoir, Causeway: A Passage from Innocence, was itself a best-selling award winner) so he knows the world of farewell parties (for those headed to Toronto or, alternately, headed back to Cape Breton — there is a steady stream going both ways) and frequent trips “back home” to the Nova Scotia island. And that aside about the value of a Canadian passport to journalists covering foreign affairs is testimony to his own experience on that front, so we can be assured that he knows that aspect of JC Campbell’s character.

Effie and JC soon strike up a friendship that turns into a tentative, but growing, affair which produces its own set of positives and negatives. The two may have not seen each other for 20 years but the Cape Breton community is small enough that they have overlapping experiences with many characters, including Effie’s two surviving husbands, the Gillis cousins, Sextus and John. Even before JC and Effie start their relationship, she is aware that the meeting has unearthed carefully-buried, dangerous memories.

Her smugness, she now realized, had come from the certainty that male behaviour could never catch her by surprise again. It was a small reward for all the years she’d spent coping with the turmoil men cause. Father. Brother. Husbands. Live-in partners. Even her neurotic male colleagues at the university. There was no excuse this time. It was entirely her own fault. She could and should have seen it coming. Her brother had disapproved of her renewed relationship with Sextus from the outset, but she really didn’t need a warning. Sextus Gillis had been dazzling and disappointing her since childhood. She dumped a husband for him, eloped and married him, tried to raise a child with him, tried to rise above his infidelities — and eventually threw him out and got over him successfully.

That is very concise summary of what Why Men Lie is about — as well as thumbnail indications of the male characters who populate the book. In the novel, “Why Men Lie” is the title of a memoir/manuscript that Sextus has written and MacIntyre engages in a riff around the title to help explain how all this will play out. The key is in the (maybe missing) punctuation, which the author invites the reader to explore. In addition to the declarative, non-punctuated form, other possible version would include: Why? Men Lie. or Why! Men Lie! or a slightly altered Why Do Men Lie?. Effie, now in her 50s, has experienced all those versions (and relives them in the book) — striking up a relationship with JC both reveals new ones and unearths some old ones. She remembers an exchange with Conor, her deceased husband:

Conor, who had told her up front there are always necessary lies — benevolent deceptions, he would call them. “Everybody has the capacity to lie,” he said. “But the biggest lie is always why we lie.”

Just as The Bishop’s Man examined the inner torment of a conflicted priest, Why Men Lie explores the confused memories of a mature woman and the impact that those revived memories have on her present. MacIntyre puts his journalist experience to good use in describing Toronto, Cape Breton and the world of 1997, but his real interest is in the “why” of what is happening inside Effie’s head. And while his central character may be female, the overriding concern of the book is some punctuated (or non-punctuated) version of “Why men lie”.

For this reader, the author is not entirely successful in delivering on that intriguing premise. Effie’s experiences with Sextus, Jack, Conor, her brother and JC — not to mention a stalker she meets in a coffee shop — all contain hints at answers but I am afraid the men, except for JC, just don’t get fully developed enough to succeed as characters and tend to blur into each other. The result is a literary version of scanning a menu rather than appreciating the meals that it presents.

Having said that, perhaps my problem is that I was too distracted by the contextual elements of the book, elements which MacIntyre handles so well — the academic and journalist world of Toronto, the insular Cape Breton community, the impact of the renewal of decades-old memories, to cite just a few. In a novel meant to explore what lies behind the deficiencies of its cast of characters, I may have ended up paying to much attention to the world that they live in. I’ll wait a few months, but I think a more disciplined second read is in order (and yes, I had to read The Bishop’s Man twice to appreciate it as well).

The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood

March 20, 2012

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Oscar Lowe is a care assistant at a Cambridge nursing home. One October night on his way home, he takes a shortcut through the grounds of King’s College and stops outside the famous chapel:

A service was underway inside. He could already hear the muted thrum of organ music behind chapel walls, and when he turned into the Front Court, the sound grew louder and sweeter, until he was close enough to make out the fullness of the instrument — a low, hoarse purr. He could almost feel it against his ribs. It was nothing like the over-powering dirges he remembered from school Christmas services, or the blundering renditions of ‘Abide with me’ he’d strained to sing over at his grandparents’ funerals. There was a fragility to this music, as if the organist wasn’t pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer. Oscar stopped in the entrance just to listen and saw the sandwich board near the open doorway: ‘Evensong 5:30, Public Welcome’. Before he knew it, his feet had carried him all the way inside.

Oscar is not religious so the readings and sermon of the service bore him. But the music, both organ and choir, is hypnotizing. And he notices that a very attractive blonde woman is showing a similar response, “kneeing the hymn book to the floor midway through the sermon, causing the reverend to pause”; he delays his departure so that he can follow her out.

His ruse works and when Oscar emerges from the chapel, she is still there, thumbing through an old paperback and smoking a clove cigarette. She smiles up at him and the two engage in conversation — and obvious interest. Finally, she asks his name:

‘Os-car. That’s nice.’ She spoke his name out into the night, pondering it, as if she could see it scrolling across the sky, on a banner pulled by an aeroplane. ‘Well, Oscar, don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but church doesn’t really seem like your scene. I was watching you in there — you didn’t know a bloody word of any of the hymns.’

‘Was it that obvious?’

‘Oh, it’s not a bad thing. I’m not exactly St Francis of Assisi myself.’

‘To be honest, I just sort of stumbled in. Something about the music, the sound of the organ. I can’t quite explain it.’

‘That’s my excuse, too.’ She breathed out another whorl from the side of her mouth. ‘My brother’s the organ scholar. That was him playing tonight. I’m just a tag-along.’

Those extended quotes supply a good indication of the deliberate, almost formal, pace that dominates Benjamin Wood’s narrative in this debut novel, not unlike the organ music that is every bit as essential to the book. Oscar has just met Iris Bellwether — one drawn to the chapel by the compelling music, the other there because her brother is playing it.

As readers, we already know that this will end in tragedy. In a two-page prologue, author Wood has previously describe the arrival of an ambulance crew some months later at an estate outside Cambridge. There are two dead bodies and a third “still breathing, but faintly”. That third is Eden, Eden Bellwether, the organist of the opening pages.

The attraction of Oscar and Iris will blossom into a love affair. More important, for the thrust of the novel, Oscar is introduced into a small “flock” of Cambridge students: Iris, Marcus, Yin and Jane, and their “shepherd”, Eden. The five have been together since public school where they were all part of the same choir. All are now studying at Cambridge but Iris’ attraction to Oscar, the lowly care attendant from a nursing home, means that he is allowed into the “flock”.

To make this novel work, there needs to be another side to the tension and it comes from Oscar’s work. His favorite patient at the nursing home is an aging academic, Abraham Paulsen. Paulsen is grumpy and wants his solitude; overtly mean to most of his attendants, but not Oscar to whom he lends books. Oscar could well be a Camridge student himself but disputes with his father and a desire to escape home meant he opted for work insead of study — still, Paulsen is gently supervising his development and lends him books (Descartes is the most recent).

Paulsen is also gay and his lifetime love is one Herbert Crest, a former student. The two fell out some decades ago but Crest has gone on to great fame across the pond in the US. He is a psychiatrist who has developed both a scholarly and populist international following, based on books that take a particular case study and expand on it. One of them, The Girl With The God Complex, developed the thesis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) which Crest has virtually defined. Crest now has a far-advanced brain tumor, is approaching the end of his days and calls on Paulsen for a final reconciliation and farewell which is where Oscar meets him.

It gives nothing away to say that Eden Bellwether, the shepherd of the flock, has NPD issues. He has developed a thesis based on “music therapy” (the power of music to hyponitize individuals) that coupled with his own self-imagined God-given talents allows him to “heal” people in the same way that evangelical charlatans practice their trade.

So, much like the author, I have given you the start and the finish of this novel. An “innocent”, Oscar, through understandable sexual attraction, finds himself part of a “flock” that is involved, because of its shepherd, in some very dodgy business. And we know it will produce tragic results.

There is a consistent method that Wood uses to develop his incidents as the novel unfolds. The introductory elements are put forward quickly and in a straightforward manner. There is obvious foreshadowing, so we have strong perceptions about the outcome with each one. The beauty, such as it is, is in how we get from A to B.

I’ll do my best to reflect that technique here: you know the start and you have a good idea of the end, with just an indication of what might happen along the way. I’ll leave the intervening developments for you to discover, if you choose to read the book.

And I will admit that I have tried to structure this review in a similar form, so let’s test my attempt.

Does all this suggest that The Bellwether Revivals is a British version of The Secret History, by Donna Tartt? A tightly-knit group of very smart, but very incomplete, college students comes under the influence of a powerful, charismatic (and twisted) leader. He drives them toward dangerous territory — their self-containment and intelligence mean they don’t attract attention from conventional authorities and can pursue their misguided business without interruption. But the contradiction inherent in their deviant behavior starts to bubble from within. Tragedy ensues.

That comparison kept running through my mind throughout the book and I suspect it will for anyone who has read Tartt’s novel (and a lot of people have). I liked The Secret History well enough, so that is a recommendation, not a criticism. Despite that, The Bellwether Revivals is not without its problems.

Most obvious is that prologue — knowing how the story will end, certainly puts a damper on speculation along the way. I can understand why the author made the decision, however. Had he not, the foreshadowing involved would have made the outcome so obvious that it would have been a downer when it arrived. Revealing it in advance means that the reader can focus on the nuances of what happens along the way since they are meant as the real meat of the book.

More problematic, however, is the characterization issue. Oscar is an outsider being introduced to a “flock” with its own rules, which are very different from those he knows, so he is a developing character throughout — and Wood handles this well, even if it is a bit obvious. For the novel to work completely, though, Eden needs to be “superior” to those around him in both intrigue and intelligence. On this front, the author is far less successful; the result being that the members of the flock tend to be under-developed rather than their leader being more complex and interesting.

That is a relatively minor quibble — The Bellwether Revivals is a highly engaging read, although not a classic “literary” novel. Let me offer another alternative. If you happen to be heading off later this year on a summer holiday with a bunch of friends where the practice is to exchange books so you can talk about them as the holiday goes on, this is one to mark down as your contribution, just as The Secret History was some 20 years ago. It is readable and entertaining — and offers much for discussion with your own “flock”, even if you are unlikely to pick it up for a re-read a decade down the road.

Not a bad debut at all.

A Perfect Hoax, by Italo Svevo

March 16, 2012

Mario Samigli was a man of letters, getting on for sixty years old. A novel he had published forty years before might have been considered dead if in this world things could die even when they had never been alive. Mario, on the other hand, faded and feeble as he was went on living very gently for years and years the kind of life made possible by the bit of a job he had, which gave him very little trouble and a very small income. Such a life is healthy, and it becomes healthier still when, as happened with Mario, it is flavoured with some beautiful dream.

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Translated by J.G. Nichols

That dream, rooted in his opinion (and no one else’s, not a single critic) of his forty-year-old, unread novel One Man’s Youth, supplies the fertile ground for the hoax that dominates Italo Svevo’s tidy novella. It is a staple commandment of the con-man’s handbook that “an honest man cannot be conned”. A Perfect Hoax is based on a slightly revised version: “A humble man cannot be hoaxed.”

Most of the time, Mario keeps his dream well-hidden but occasionally it does become apparent. For example, periodically he can be heard “judging living and dead authors decisively, and even citing himself as a precursor” but his friends are willing to overlook that “seeing himself blush as even a sixty year old can, when he is a man of letters and in that situation.”

And it is not as though Mario has never been given a hint that his “dream” bears no relation whatsoever to reality:

At the outbreak of the Italian war Mario was afraid that the first act of persecution that the Royal Poice would carry out in Trieste would involve him — one of the few Italian men of letters remaining in the city — in a fine old trial which might send him to dangle on the gallows. This filled him with terror and at the same time with hope, making him now exult and now blanch with terror. He imagined that his judges, a full council of war, composed of representatives of the whole military hierarchy from the general down, must have read his novel, and — if there was any justice in the world — studied it.

Mario expands his dream to include the idea that that studying would spare his life, a reward for the quality of his novel. Indeed, his life is spared, but by other means — not even the persecutors bother to read it. His response is to compose a short, daily fable featuring the sparrows outside his home: “A literary development he owed to the police who, however, showed themselves to be quite ignorant of the local literature, and who, during the whole course of the war, left poor Mario in peace, disappointed and reassured.”

Before we get to the hoax itself, let me quote one of those fables since Svevo offers frequent examples in the book as a counterpoint to the developing story:

I wish I could abolish the warfare on the little horse chestnut in my courtyard in the evening, when the sparrows try to find the best place in which to spend the night, because it would be a good sign for the future of humanity.

It is hard for a reader not to feel sorry for Mario — we all have our favorite “one-book” authors who come to mind when we consider his state. His egotism is well-contained, rarely exposed and hurts no one; surely he doesn’t deserve to be punished for it.

It is the evil Gaia, a travelling salesman, one of Mario’s two friends who “was about to be revealed as his bitterest enemy.” Gaia is a failed poet and a lover of playing tricks; Mario’s self-satisfaction both reminds Gaia of his own literary failure and offers fertile territory for the perfect hoax even if it is “loaded with real hatred”.

The hoax itself is deceptively simple. Gaia recruits a German friend whom he presents to Mario as the representative of Westermann Publishers of Vienna. They want to publish a German translation of One Man’s Youth and are willing to pay any price (the agreement is evenually for two hundred thousand crowns), with Gaia taking a “commission” of only five per cent.

The two tricksters are so pleased with themselves that they actually dissolve in laughter during the “negotiations” at a Trieste cafe, but Mario, hopelessly entranced that his work is finally being recognized, conveniently decides to ignore it. The price that he pays as his “dream” slowly evaporates forms the bulk of the novella.

It is fitting that Mario writes his little fables because that is the best approach to take to A Perfect Hoax. Svevo wrote and self-published his first novel, Una Vita [A Life], to almost universal silence, at the age of 32. His second, Senilita [As a Man Grows Older] was self-published five years later, again at his own expense and again to no notice. Comparing those titles to Mario’s would seem indication enough that Svevo knows exactly whose ego he is mocking with this book.

Svevo’s own dream began to take shape in 1907 when James Joyce became interested in his work and the two formed a lasting friendship. Even then, it was not until 1923 (30 years after Svevo’s first book appeared) that Joyce persuaded his French publishers to produce a translation of what has become Svevo’s best-known work, The Confessions of Zeno. For Svevo, the dream literally did come true and he spent his last years giving talks on his own work. A Perfect Hoax was published in 1929, a safe distance from Svevo’s own uncertain dreaming.

A Perfect Hoax is best taken as a literary curiosity, Svevo’s own confession of where his own lack of humility might have taken him. The Hesperus Press edition that I read features an introduction from author Tim Parks which discloses this bit of history — far from spoiling the novella, I found it essential in supplying some contextual depth since the fictional story here is pretty slim.

I’ve already confessed that Mario attracted my sympathy; Svevo treats him very gently, for entirely understandable reasons. Knowing that the author was baring some of his own dreams only made my sympathy more genuine. A Perfect Hoax isn’t a great work by any means but it offers a very revealing insight to what was going on inside the head of one author, who did eventually succeed rather than falling a victim to a hoax. One can only wonder how many other authors have similar dreams — and might be more likely to share Mario’s experience if some version of Gaia decided to take aim at cruelly exposing their dream.

August, by Gerard Woodward

March 11, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Gerard Woodward’s trilogy on the life of the Jones family (August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth) has been on the shelf beside my reading chair for some time — my purchase of the three was the result of enthusiastic recommendations from a number of U.K. bloggers and commenters here. The decision to begin reading a trilogy always has a bit of challenge involved since it signals a commitment that is bound to mean a fair bit of reading time.

So when a new Woodward (Nourishment) appeared in 2010, I opted for a detour right from the start, testing the author with the new work to see whether I should make the commitment. While some readers did find Nourishment just too strange for their taste (it is a WWII story set in London with some fairly gruesome scenes and truly odd plot developments), I quite liked it — Woodward’s ability to suddenly insert an abrupt left or right turn in the story struck my fancy. The trilogy beckoned.

August has oddity to it as well, but hardly that of the sudden plot twists of Nourishment. If anything, the distinguishing characteristic of this book is its distinct ordinariness and lack of surprise. Aldous Jones is a teacher, comfortably ensconced in a modest North London home with his wife Colette and, when the book opens, two children. During the 15 years of the story, two more children will arrive — all quite comparable to those living in your neighborhood.

What distinguishes the Joneses, and the novel, is their commitment to an annual August tenting holiday at a farm in Wales. As the novel opens, Aldous has cycled from London to Wales (it is a four-day trip) on a scouting mission for what will be the initial holiday; we meet him flying off his cycle in a country lane, the result of a mishap with the local squire’s Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire Saloon — Woodward’s taste for the unlikely and unusual is deployed immediately with the delayed revelation that Aldous, while flying through the air after the accident, has managed to snag his false teeth, saving them from destruction. For the reader, it is a fair sign of what is to come in the ensuing 300 pages.

So too is the phone call that he makes to Colette a few hours later to inform her that the accident has turned out to be fortuitous — the family from the farm across the hedge would be happy for the Joneses to pitch their tent there:

“I’m in Mr and Mrs Evans’s farmhouse. It’s in a place called Llanygwynfa. I don’t think I said that right. I had a tumble on the bike. They patched me up and gave me some tea. She opened a can of pineapple chunks for me. She said they only did that on special occasions. They’re very nice. He’s out in the fields now — he was actually carrying one of those crosier things, like a bishop. She’s in the farmyard collecting eggs. They said we can stay here…”

It takes considerable talent for a writer to make the ordinary special, in the same sense that life must be rather quiet when opening a tin of pinepapple chunks is reserved for special occasions. Woodward succeeds — the bulk of August is a study of what makes the everyday (albeit, somewhat twisted) extraordinary. He achieves this through a meticulous attention to detail that never wanes, be it descriptions of the Wales countryside and mountains, the neighborhood where the Joneses live in London, the social interactions on the August holidays or the trials and tribulations that occur inside any family with four offspring.

I say “the bulk” because a third of the way through the book a highly unlikely event occurs that will frame the rest of the novel, in essence creating a new ordinary. Aldous has been repairing the puncture of one of his bike’s tyres with Colette looking on:

She’d just been sitting in one of the camping chairs, smoking, looking at the hills. But a little girl had woken up in her when the scent of the glue reached her. She had followed its winding path to its source, to the tube of glue that nestled in the repair tin. She picked it up.

The tube of glue was called Romac. It was the size of the little fish Colette used to catch in the Lee Navigation, holding them by the tail as they yelled silently with their tiny, silver mouths, before throwing them back. This tube was half squeezed out, pressed to a creasy flatness at the tail end, swelling towards the neck. The bulk of the remaining glue was sealed in by a black, octagonal screw-top.

To be half empty indicated a long history for this glue. A single repair used a tiny amount, a blob that wouldn’t cover a little fingernail.

Carefully, as Aldous pressed the restored inner tube back into its tyre, Colette unscrewed the top of the Romac. Like some Duchess at the perfume counter of Harrods she lifted the neck of the tube to her nose and breathed in the scent. Her thoughts became trees. Towering canopies of memories branching and leafing, falling. The leaves falling.

That farm field experience outside the tent will soon turn into a full-fledged glue-sniffing habit. If you are a stickler for likelihood when it comes to plot development, you will be inclined to say “c’mon, Gerard”. Perhaps that is where having read Nourishment helped me — Woodward is an author who needs to set his reality askew and he doesn’t hesitate to approach the absurd in doing that. For the reader who is willing to go with him, he has then created a “new normal” which serves his descriptive talents exceptionally well. And his eye for portraying the importance of apparently insignificant detail comes into full play.

So, if August is a portrayal of the ordinary, it is an ordinary set in a somewhat skewed world which is a major part of the attraction of the novel for this reader. It is a trait that I think he shares with Ian McEwan, particular in McEwan’s earlier novels — if the implausibility in An Enduring Love or The Child in Time was part of the attraction for you, you’ll have no problems at all with August. Some authors need five per cent of their world to be highly unlikely so they can properly address the other 95 per cent.

As the novel proceeds, Aldous and Colette become fully rounded characters as do a couple of their children. While the other two serve mainly as support characters in this book, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them more fully developed in the next two volumes.

And yes I will be reading those next two. The Jones family is weird enough that I’ll let it rest for a few months, but I will be returning.

The Street, by Mordecai Richler

March 7, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Mordecai Richler is a special friend of this blog. My post on his signature work, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, is at the top of the alltime KfC blog hitlist (although Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending is launching an impressive challenge). Richler’s final novel, Barney’s Version, holds down fifth spot. I owe a debt both to the teachers who put his novels on reading lists and to movie producers for provoking the ongoing interest.

I read almost all of Richler’s books in my younger years and am thoroughly enjoying a disciplined re-read of his life’s work — and am equally delighted to see that a new generation is now discovering him. For those familiar with the best-known Richler novels, The Street is a bit of departure. It is a collection of 10 short stories and Richler did not write a lot of those — indeed, readers outside of North America may find it a challenge to locate a copy. Let me assure you, the slim volume is worth tracking down.

Those who have read Richler’s fiction will be aware that he constructs his novels in “episodic” fashion. Yes, there is an over-arching plot. But he develops it scene by scene and each of those is almost self-contained. The Street represents the flip side of that coin — it is not a novel, but the 10 stories that it contains could easily be read as a novel in draft form, scenes ready to be inserted into a bigger plot. Virtually every one illustrates why Richler deserves his substantial reputation.

“The Street” is where Richler grew up in Montreal — a Jewish community surrounded by the Anglos and French-Canadians. It actually involves five streets, all with subtle class differentiations (St. Urbain is the one that lives on, thanks to Richler), bounded by Main and Park — everything outside the small, self-contained community represents another world, if not a threat. In the introduction by the author to the volume that I read (you can find it at the New Canadian Library site here), Richler offers this explanation as a framing for these stories (I would argue that it frames his entire oeuvre):

On St. Urbain Street, a head start was all. Our mothers read us stories from Life about pimply astigmatic fourteen-year-olds who had already graduated from Harvard or who were confounding the professors at M.I.T. Reading Tip-Top Comics or listening to The Green Hornet on the radio was as good as asking for a whack on the head, sometimes administered with a copy of The Canadian Jewish Eagle, as if that in itself would be nourishing. We were not supposed to memorise baseball batting averages or dirty limericks. We were expected to improve our Word Power with the Reader’s Digest and find inspiration in Paul de Kruif’s medical biographies. If we didn’t make doctors, we were supposed to at least squeeze into dentistry. School marks didn’t count as much as rank. One wintry day I came home, nostrils clinging together and ears burning cold, proud of my report. “I came rank two, Maw.”

“And who came rank one, may I ask?”

For those who don’t know Richler, that excerpt tells a lot. His chronicles of growing-up-Jewish in Montreal were acrid enough that some called him anti-Semitic. Later on, his thoughts about Quebec separatists in a famous piece in the New Yorker were enough to provoke belief among some that he was a traitor to Quebec. For those of us who read widely, the response is far different — these are the impressions of an incredibly observant writer, who describes with precision the world where he grew up, its aspirations and its tensions. Mordecai was not a perfect person, but he certainly was an interesting one.

Consider, for example, his opening to “The Main”, a story about the boundary street (“rich in delights, but also squalid, filthy, and hollering with stores whose wares, whether furniture or fruit, were ugly or damaged”) of Richler’s St. Urbain-based community:

The Main, with something for all our appetites, was dedicated to pinching pennies from the poor, but it was there to entertain, educate and comfort us too. Across the street from the synagogue you could see THE PICTURE THEY CLAIMED COULD NEVER BE MADE. A little further down the street was the Workman’s Circle and, if you liked, a strip show. Peaches, Margo, Lili St. Cyr. Around the corner there was the ritual baths, the shvitz or mikva, where my grandfather and his cronies went before the High Holidays, emerging boiling red from the highest reaches of the steam rooms to happily flog each other with brushes fashioned from pine tree branches. Where supremely orothodox women went once a month to purify themselves.

The Jewish families shopped on the Main (“once a year before the High Holidays”) but for these adolescent Montrealers it also represented the first step out to a bigger world, the objective of every St. Urbain resident:

After the shopping, once our errands had been done, we returned to the Main once more, either for part-time jobs or to study with our malamud. Jobs going on the Main included spotting pins in a bowling alley, collecting butcher bills and, best of all, working at a news-stand, where you could devour the Police Gazette free and pick up a little extra shortchanging strangers during the rush hour. Work was supposed to be good for our character development and the fact that we were paid was incidental. To qualify for a job we were supposed to be “bright, ambitious and willing to learn”. An ad I once saw in a shoe store window read:

PART-TIME BOY WANTED FOR EXPANDING BUSINESS.
EXPERIENCE ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, BUT NOT ESSENTIAL

We all have to grow up somewhere and, for those of us who grew up in working class neighborhoods in the post-war boom of North America, Richler’s adolescent world is an exaggerated reminder of that life (okay, one of my first jobs as a pre-teen was spotting pins in a bowling alley, worth a nickel a line). The way that he evokes Main Street as the opening to a “way out” brought tears to my eyes throughout the story.

If the tightly-knit world of the Montreal Jewish ghetto is one consistent of these stories, an equally important one is the never-absent presence of ingrained debt to family and friends (and sometimes community), perhaps best captured in “The Summer My Grandmother Was Supposed To Die”. My apologies for offering yet another lengthy quote, but I can’t beat Richler in the way that he introduces this story:

Dr. Katzman discovered the gangrene on one of his monthly visits. “She won’t last a month,” he said.

He said the same the second month, the third and the fourth, and now she lay dying in the heat of the back bedroom.

“God in heaven,” my mother said, “what’s she holding on for?”

The summer my grandmother was supposed to die we did not chip in with the Greenbaums to take a cottage in the Laurentians. My grandmother, already bed-ridden for seven years, could not be moved again. The doctor came twice a week. The only thing was to stay in the city and wait for her to die or, as my mother said, pass away. It was a hot summer, her bedroom was just behind the kitchen, and when we sat down to eat we could smell her. The dressings on my grandmother’s left leg had to be changed several times a day, and, according to Dr. Katzman, any day might be her last in this world. “It’s in the hands of the Almighty,” he said.

Grandmother might be dying, but that is not really what the story is about. Rather, it is a study in how a closely knit family, but one that is already feeling the tensions of conflict between generations, begins to discover the “rules” of what the new world is going to look like.

Overall, that insight pervades these stories: Richler is absolutely superb at capturing current reality, but his real interest is painting the picture of how things are changing for those who inhabit it, especially the young. I have gone on at too great length already but if you check out the collection you will also find thoughts on the impact for Montreal Jewish teenagers of the War in Europe, the Red Menace and Making it with Chicks. Not to mention frequent tangential visits to Tansky’s Cigar and Soda (“the regulars felt it was a good omen that the truckers and peddlars sometimes stopped there”) by the beleaguered husbands of the community, to play some cards, hang out and escape their wives.

If you haven’t read Mordecai Richler, The Street is not the best place to start (Duddy or Barney are probably better entry points) but do mark the collection down for future reference. If you have already read some or all of this master, this collection is essential — in shortish bits (137 pages in total and that includes Richler’s preface and an excellent afterword from William Weintraub), Richler develops some of the building blocks that will be essential to the novels that will be his lasting work. Truly, a gem.

Get Me Out Of Here, by Henry Sutton

March 2, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

Matt Freeman is one of those despicable characters who are necessary to complete the world of entertaining fiction. Get Me Out Of Here is narrated in the first person, so his total unreliability as a narrator comes with the turf. He is a hopeless consumer snob and prisoner to fashion, which offers plenty of opportunity for satire. On the revenue side, the novel is set in 2008, post crash, and Matt would have us believe his “work” is running his own firm in the City of London — opening the door for yet another stream of acrid observation. And then there is his darker side — back of the book blurbs make comparisons to Bonfire of the Vanities and American Psycho.

All in all, that is not a prescription for my kind of read. But my interest was piqued by a very enthusiastic review from Guy Savage (“insanely entertaining” and “one of my reads of the year”) and Guy knows his noir. And an equally positive assessment from my fellow Shadow Giller judge Kimbofo at Reading Matters (“probably the most disturbing novel I have read all year”) convinced me that it was time for a journey outside my reading comfort zone. Get Me Out Of Here won’t be on my top 10 list at year end but the excursion was well worth the effort.

Sutton introduces Matt the upscale consumer first and that seems an appropriate place to start. Our anti-hero is in a David Clulow optometry shop at Canary Wharf, trying for the third time to get back the £500 he paid for a pair of Lindberg glasses. His excuse is that he does a lot of travelling for his work (Kabul, Baghdad, Pyongyang, he says) and needs a reliable, tough pair and these have now “broken” three times — it is pretty obvious that the “breaking” hasn’t come from the design flaw he says is responsible. The sales assistant (“pretty — darkish, long, straight hair tied back, with a good figure, neatly tucked into a rather demure, patterned blouse and tight black trousers”) is again offering only an exchange and no cash-back option.

As she walked back over to the phone, I continued to search the fiddly, hopelessly fragile display racks for a pair that might do instead. I picked up frames by Oliver Peoples, Alain Mikli, Prada, Tom Ford, Philippe Starck — I hated Philippe Starck, out of principle, anyone who tried that hard to make a statement — Giorgio Armani, and Paul Smith. Oh dear, what’d happened to poor old Paul Smith of late — too successful? Resting on his laurels? Simply relying on past performance? Didn’t I know how that scenario could develop.

Matt’s fascination with upscale fashion (and his inability to actually pay for it) is the “fun” part of this novel. The reader is treated to excursions to the Prada shop on Bond Street where he has bought a “puff” jacket at a half-price sale — and is again frustrated when his attempts to get cash back later are rebuffed. And there is an entertaining short dissertation on the values of John Smedley knitwear (I own a few, so I did appreciate this part). And a visit to Church’s shoe store to scam the “purchase” of a pair of tan brogues. There is plenty more on the fashion front, all great fun, although we do end up feeling sorry for the hapless sales assistants. Matt also makes a number of “dine and dash” visits to trendy London restaurants where Sutton again displays a fine touch for criticizing trendy menus and pompous wine lists.

Then there is Matt Freeman Associates, the independent firm the narrator has set up after spending time as an employee in a more traditional, larger City firm. The author presages this aspect of the book with his epigram at the start: “Great ideology creates great times”, Kim Jong-il. I doubt the deceased North Korean leader is quoted approvingly in many English novels, but he is a beacon of hope for Matt and his business — his “plan” is to serve as an agent bridging North Korea with English capital markets.

Plus there was Kim Jong-il. Or was there? Who knew whether he was alive or dead. Or if he was alive in what sort of state of health. Had he been rendered useless by a stroke, as recent reports had suggested? A pale shadow of his former, extraordinary self, lying semi-comatose, surrounded by weeping flunkies, in some outlandish palatial mansion. What a pity. I’d liked his style. His jumpsuits and buoffant hairdo — would he still have someone to attend to his toilet? How I’d liked his reputation as being something of a ladies’ man — the fact he’d fathered numerous children and was now living, or maybe not, with a former movie star. I’d liked his power and the fact he’d so troubled both the US and China. And how if he went anywhere, which not surprisingly was not often, at least not far — who would have him? — he went by a lengthy, bombproof train. It wasn’t that he’d been concerned about his carbon footprint — though given his nuclear ambitions, one could argue he’d been trying to do his bit to cut carbon emissions — he was scared shitless.

Sutton’s take on empty global capitalism is almost as good as his one on empty contemporary fashion but the book suffered for me in that he does not devote nearly enough space to exploring it, teasing rather than delivering. If I had a wish list for Get Me Out Of Here, it would have been that it had more of the finance and business angle to it.

Which leaves the American Psycho thread, involving a string of failed relationships. They start with the mother of an old school chum, extend through a fiancee who abandoned him, a casual sex trip to Mallorca and Matt’s latest, an affair with 24-year-old Bobbie, more than a decade younger than him, whom we meet watching I’m A Celebrity — Get Me Out Of Here on the telly.

If she hadn’t been so exceptionally pretty I’d have left by now. She was simply gorgeous, even when she was engrossed in some tired reality TV show. She was still wearing her work clothes — a tight dark skirt and thin, baby blue polo neck, with patterned, light pink tights. She went for bright colour coordinations, said it was in this season — and she would have known — but for someone who was so careful about her appearance she was remarkably careless about her clothes. She never hung them up properly, choosing insead to leave them where they fell. The bathroom floor was awash with them, along with dirty, damp towels. I had no idea how she managed to look smart and not remotely crumpled, or skanky.

I found this thread the least satisfying in the book. Sutton downplays the realism of it deliberately, but every time it became the centre of the narrative I found it more distracting than disturbing — Matt is so charmingly empty a character in every other respect that it is hard to treat him seriously as a potential psychopath.

One final observation on another strength of the book is the author’s ability to take the reader on a journey through modern central London. Matt lives in a concrete apartment block next door to the Barbican, an area I know a bit about, and he carries that off well (including the soulless concrete plazas, corridors and a Thresher’s wine store). I’ve already mention the Canary Wharf plaza and Bond Street. Bobbie lives in Battersea Rise, which enables Sutton to explore both that part of South London and aspects of Pimlico and Chelsea across the river. I had my A to Z out throughout my reading and it served me well.

I hope those thoughts supply enough of a taste for those who have not read Get Me Out Of Here to make a judgment. If you like satire — or a kind of off-the-wall noir — you will probably find much to like in the book. And if you want a jaundiced, but entirely plausible, look at contemporary London, there is much to appreciate here. And even if those two aspects don’t have attraction, the novel is different enough to be worth your while.


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