Archive for July, 2009

Red Dog, Red Dog, by Patrick Lane

July 3, 2009

laneRed Dog, Red Dog was on my personal shortlist for last year’s Giller Prize — it went on to the “read again” pile but stayed there when it failed to make the official shortlist. Published this spring in the United Kingdom it is eligible for this year’s ManBooker Prize and has attracted very positive comments on the MB forum site from two readers whom I respect, Ang and bookermt. With the Canadian paperback due out in early August, I finally was motivated to make that second read. It was even better than the first one.

Patrick Lane is an award-winning Canadian poet and memoirist. Red Dog, Red Dog, published at age 69, is his first novel; he has taught creative writing at a couple of universities so his influence extends well beyond his published work.

Forewarned is forearmed: this is a very bleak novel. While the action of the book, set in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, takes place during one week of 1958, the tragedy of the Stark family is cumulative, extending back several generations into the late nineteenth century. Much of that historical story is told from the grave by Alice Stark, who died at age six months — it is a device that Lane uses very effectively.

The author takes fully half the novel to set in place the pieces of his story, almost like a chessmaster setting up a particularly challenging puzzle, taking great care to establish for the reader just how the bleak present came to be.

Eddy Stark is the oldest son and the trouble-maker who moves the plot. He got sent to reform school as a 14-year-old. Alice summarizes his story:

Sergeant Stanley arrested Eddy, Harry having slipped away into the crowd. Richard Smythe, the town’s judge, sent him down to Boyco, the boy’s correctional school in Vancouver, despite Eddy being a year too young. Stanley wanted to teach Eddy a lesson. So did Father. Eddy never forgot Sergeant Stanley arresting him or the year that followed in that prison. There was something dead in Eddy’s head when he came back from the coast. The boy he’d been was no longer there, and in his place was someone gone past feeling, who thought nothing of pain, his own or anyone else’s. Even Father stepped sideways when Eddy walked behind him.

Heroin and violence are Eddy’s response. Despite this, his younger brother, Tom — the closest thing to a normal character in the book — feels a bond that cannot be broken. Tom himself is a damaged creature. Alice again tells the back story, this time referencing Rose, another sister who died even younger:

It was Tom’s name Little Rose called out to me when I lay in my last breathing. Tom, she said, Tom. He was the brother she turned me to, the hands I knew alive when he fed me stolen milk, a boy I watch over dead. I saw him then for what he was, his solemn face beyond the bars of my crib. He was a boy gone early to old. He was born in the wrong season, wind in a rocky country, desert snow. He carried a sack of grief in his heart, in his eyes the story of us all.

Lane is every bit as meticulous in developing the minor characters in the book. Here is his description of Crystal:

Crystal had the calculating half-dreams of the poor. She’d grown up in a shotgun trailer with old towels for curtains. If anyone looked close at her they’d find a hole in a stocking, a seam stitched by a bad needle, a hem come down, or a twist in a sweater woven wrong. She had the curse of coming from nothing, all her plans a map leading her someday into a beat-up trailer worse than the one she came from, pregnant with two bawling kids and bruises on her cheeks. To her a skirt and sweater in the end were just things a boy took off, blonde hair something they could grab. Tom figured the day Crystal was born she’d opened her eyes to a wrong world. Eddy said Crystal Wright was the kind of girl men fed upon, Billy, Joe, Harry, and the rest. Both brothers were right.

Those are longer quotes than I normally cite — I think they are important to establish both how Lane frames his story and how he eventually brings it to fruition. And I admit that Lane is one of those authors who demand that you use his own words. It is no spoiler to say that Eddy commits an act which is beyond the pale, even for him. The back story well-established, Lane then steps up the pace. The bleakness of the past is repeated in the present.

Red Dog, Red Dog is a novel for serious readers. While I do think it is an outstanding achievement from a very talented writer, you will get no complaint from me if you say “this is just too much grief for me”. Having said that, I think it is well worth the effort.

An Essay: KFC’s Everyman’s Library project

July 1, 2009

el colophonI was a very grumpy reader when 2006 began. Both the Giller and Man Booker in 2005 had produced frustrating and frankly not very good shortlists and I had spent a lot of the fall reading bad books. A return to classic novels seemed an ideal solution.

So I headed into the basement to look for possibilities. Most of the likely candidates (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Updike, Nabokov, Waugh, etc.) I had read in my youth and the shelves showed it — cheap paperback copies that after decades on the shelf promised to fall apart somewhere around page 200 of a 600-page work.

A chance encounter with Albert Camus’ The Plague tucked away in the corner of a local bookshop changed all of that. It was a hardcover Everyman’s Library version and I immediately remembered that the EL colophon had been an earmark for me in my youth — if they published a novel, I should probably read it. Annie Dillard makes a similar observation about the influence of the Modern Library on her in her memoir, An American Childhood. Like her, I had checked St. Augustine’s Confessions out of the library based on the colophon — it turned out not to be quite as racy as I hoped. Alice Munro also makes reference to the EL motto in one of the stories in The View From Castle Rock: “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side,” a quote from the morality play that has has been printed at the start of all but the first two EL volumes.

Everyman's bookcase 1 (2)Whatever…my Everyman’s Library project was begun. On top of my readerly grumpiness, there was the incentive of our new house, complete with a library with custom-built shelves. In addition to attractive volumes of contemporary works, filling those shelves with well-produced classics that I knew I would turn to again seemed to be in order. I didn’t realize it for a few months, but this was actually a centenary project — EL produced its first volumes in 1906, went through some tough times after my university days and was relaunched in 1991. The picture above shows about two-thirds of the project; I had to turn the corner and expand onto additional shelves once I really got going.

A quick internet search showed the viability of the project. While the books are hard to find in bookstores (a precious few, like Hatchard’s in Piccadilly, have dedicated sections but those stores are continents away for this book buyer), online sellers had them all. With appropriate discounts, most of them arrived at the front door for less than $20 Cdn a book — just about the same price as a trade paperback and for a much better book, both in content and production. The cloth covers are not super-fancy, but they are very nice — those with dust covers are equally well done (I did debate about removing the dust covers and decided against it). The binding is excellent; after the first 50 pages most of the books will lie open on your lap. I confess to snobbery about well-produced books. If I am reading a classic, I’d like the book to feel like a classic. EL does that, all at a reasonable price.

The project is now pretty much complete. I have somewhere in excess of 130 classic novels (and am proud to say I have already read about two-thirds of them since starting it). That represents most of the EL fiction collection — I’m not a Dickens fan, so there are none of those, and I’m still wondering about whether I should expand into short story collections. New issues produce a handful of volumes each year, but I am now getting old enough that I often already have handsome hardcover copies of the new issues.

The project did produce some offshoots. The Modern Library (whose covers I don’t find nearly as attractive) does publish some titles (notably Proust) that EL does not — so I have about 15 of those. I am also a selective buyer of Folio Society volumes. They are expensive, but if you like the book, well worth the investment. They fill up a few more shelves. And I have a small collection of Library of America books — writers like William Maxwell and Sinclair Lewis who are hard to find in hard cover anywhere else.

So when I settle into my reading chair (it is an Eames chair from Herman Miller, another reader’s luxury I could not resist) to take on the latest questionable book (or in the case of last year’s Booker shortlist, a string of questionable books) it only takes an upward glance to remind me that there are dozens of books to be read and reread that will offer a great return on the investment. And some days, it is just fine to look at the books to remind my of the joys that still await.

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