Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock


Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The “guy” novel is a sub-genre that tends not to show up on Giller Prize shortlists for years — and then when it does, it seems there is always more than one. By way of example, the last appearance (which, truth be told, was only two years ago in 2011) featured Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers and Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, both of which centred on very male males.

While Coady is back on the list this year with the story collection, Hellgoing, most of those stories have heroines, not heroes. Two of her competitors for this year’s Prize, however, are very much “guy” novels. I’ve already reviewed Craig Davidson’s Cataract City which features two males raised in the laboring class of Niagara Falls who choose opposite sides of the law — and find themselves involved in very “guy-like” pursuits such as dog-fighting and bare-knuckle boxing.

Going Home Again again is a different example of the genre — the two brothers featured in this novel are very much part of the upper middle-class. Like Davidson’s heroes, they have been estranged for a number of years. Unlike his, however, they are facing the same challenge: the break-up of a long-established marriage has left both in a male version of no-man’s land.

11shadow logoFor author Bock, Charlie Bellerose is the one who is “going home again” and is the more important of the two. He is introduced in a prologue which takes place a year after the bulk of the story — effectively, the prologue is a high-level outline of what is to come in the book. After a year spent in Toronto where he was raised, Charlie is back in Madrid for his daughter Ava’s birthday party which also involves a maybe-hopeful reunion with his wife, Isabel.

The fact that Ava was turning thirteen probably made a bigger impression on me than it made on her. It almost felt that night as if I were stepping into a finished painting, and all I had to do to figure out what that painting meant was get to the other side of this weekend. Ava was excited, of course — she was the one getting the presents and blowing out the candles. But my first year as a bachelor in two decades was just coming to a close, and now like magic, as if time had snapped its fingers, it came to me that I was in the middle of a life I hadn’t really paid much attention to. My old self was buried in the irretrievable past, the world had continued, and suddenly my baby daughter was a teenager.

Charlie has been in a holding pattern for a year and, in that pattern, his devotion to his daughter has come to represent the centrepiece of what he hopes his future would be. Charlie owns four language academies in Spain and Ireland — his decision to open a fifth in Toronto has provided the rationale for setting down in his old home town while he tries to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

One of the costs of that choice will be coming to terms with his brother Nate whom he hasn’t seen for thirteen years — a visit by Nate to Madrid in 1992 ended in a drunken near brawl between the two and they didn’t even speak for three or four years. While Charlie and Isabel are separated but still tolerant of each other, Nate’s marriage is in even worse shape — his wife Monica tossed her wedding ring into the Toronto harbor a few months earlier, moved in with “a Swedish man who owned what he described as a multidimensional sports-and-entertainment complex for the modern adventure-seeking kid” and started very messy divorce proceedings.

Despite the thirteen-year estrangement, Nate meets Charlie at the airport and drives him into the city:

There were no awkward silences between us that day. As he drove me into the city — we were riding in air-conditioned comfort in a big white Escalade that afforded us a bird’s-eye view of the laps of the drivers in the next lane — he mentioned his kids three or four times, how great they were, what they did for fun, how he liked nothing more than hanging out in the backyard and grilling hot dogs and burgers for them. Sticking to the upside of my life, I told him that Ava was an athletic and popular kid, almost twelve years old at that point, a kid who loved to read, did great in school and had a knack for languages. “Can you believe it? Us as dads,” he said. “The mind boggles.”

Given their marital problems, “being a dad” is one thing the two do have in common — and the love for their offspring is about all that either has to serve as an anchor to the recent past. Charlie, however, soon finds himself transported to an even more distant past when the two brothers and Nate’s sons Titus and Quinn head to a book festival event where Titus’ favorite author will be signing books. It is the author’s minder who suddenly brings Charlie up short:

I was watching people flowing past, taken by the simplicity of the moment and the warm sun on my face, when in the crowd I saw the woman I had dated and lived with back in my university days. Her name was Holly Grey, and she had been my first love.

It was very clearly her. I knew this with absolute certainty, though people passed between us and her back was partially turned. It helped, I suppose, that she’d neither gained nor last any weight, and her hair was much the same, despite being cut shorter now than I remembered it. I was suddenly in another time and place. And then after an instant I was back again.

And so the elements of Charlie’s year-long quest for what his future life will be are in place: Holly as the avatar for his long-ago youthful past, his separation from Isabel and his daughter as the reason for his present and his hopes for Ava as the symbol for his future.

The most successful part of Going Home Again is the way Bock deals with Charlie’s challenge in bringing those three threads together. He isn’t a particularly attractive character, but he is in many ways a sympathetic one as he tries to come to terms with the kind of middle-age crises that many men face.

Unfortunately, for this reader, that was not enough to overcome the weaknesses of the novel. While Nate is meant to be a sort of “compare and contrast” version of someone facing similar issues to Charlie, he never really comes to life and serves more as a convenient caricature than concrete character. And the children whom both Charlie and Nate are devoted to come off even worse — Ava (and to a lesser extent Titus and Quinn) ends up being one of those know-it-all pre-teens who makes brilliant observations that serve the author’s needs rather than being a realistic part of the story.

The result is a readable novel, but not a memorable one. Without giving too much away, a forced dramatic ending left me with the impression that Bock had written himself into a box that he needed to get out of — had he succeeded in creating a cast of real characters, it would not have been necessary. For my tastes, The Sisters Brothers, The Antagonist and Cataract City are all better examples of the “guy” novel than Going Home Again is.


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