Archive for the ‘Bock, Dennis’ Category

Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

October 30, 2013

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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Kimbofo reviews Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

October 21, 2013

1aabockKimbofo has checked in with her review of Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, so the flood of Shadow Giller Jury reviews has started. You can read her full review here — in the meantime here are Kim’s opening paragraphs from that review:

I’ll admit that I was in two minds about reading Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. I wanted to read it, because I generally like stories about repatriation; but I also didn’t want to read it, because I know Trevor, from The Mookse and The Gripes, didn’t like it. [Trevor’s review is here.]

Yet, when I opened this book on Saturday afternoon, thinking I’d just read a couple of chapters, I found myself completely absorbed by this tale of two divorced men and their fragile relationships with those around them, and before I knew it I had almost finished the entire novel.

The story is narrated by Charlie Bellerose, a Canadian who has spent the best part of 20 years living in Madrid, where he is married with a 12-year-old daughter. But things are not as cosy as they first seem. Charlie and his Spanish wife are estranged, and Charlie has made the decision to return home to Toronto, where he plans to open his fifth foreign language school and start his life afresh.

And it is here in Toronto that he re-establishes contact with his older brother, Nate, with whom he has a troubled relationship. The last time he saw Nate was a decade ago — and the two have not been on speaking terms since. But things are different now — Nate seems older and wiser, even if he is going through a rather messy divorce with his wife, Monica, and he is sharing responsibility for bringing up their two sons, Titus and Quinn.

Over the course of a year, we follow Charlie’s ups and downs: his struggle to adjust to life without his daughter, whom he adores; the joy of taking on a fatherly role to Titus and Quinn, often looking after them while Nate is away on business; his reconnection with Holly, an old girlfriend, who is now happily married; and the happiness of finding a new girlfriend. As these events unfold, Bock uses flashbacks to tell Charlie’s back story: his upbringing by a kindly uncle after his parents were killed in a car crash; his life at university in which his best friend — Holly’s boyfriend — jumped off a bridge and died; his subsequent meanderings through Spain and how he met his wife; the tense, stressful — and wary — relationship he has with Nate.

Trevor reviews Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock

October 9, 2013

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Here’s the first Shadow Giller Jury review, Trevor’s thoughts on Going Home Again, by Dennis Bock. I have only posted the opening paragraphs — for the full review click here.

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I love being a part of the Shadow Giller Jury (headed by KevinfromCanada, who is writing up a lot more than me here). It’s one of the best things that has come from my blogging. This will mark my . . . fifth year? Holy cow, time flies. So, with yesterday’s announcement of the shortlist, my work begins now: Dennis Bock’s third novel, Going Home Again (2013).

I won’t be coy. I didn’t like this book, despite the fact that it treads on one of my favorite themes: memories of the past, especially those we hoped we’d forgotten, haunt the present.

When the book begins, Charlie Bellerose, our first-person narrator, has just learned that someone with a strange name is dead, and Charlie’s brother is missing. We then quickly flash back one year, to the summer of 2005, and find Charlie returning to his home in Toronto. He’s just separated from his wife, Isabel, and left her in Madrid where they’d lived for nearly two decades. With that separation, he’s also left his twelve-year-old daughter, Ava. And so, here he is, returning home again, to a life he’d been able to forget mostly, since he was so far from it.

In Toronto he is nervous to reacquaint himself with his brother, Nate. The last time he spent any time with Nate was over ten years ago, in 1993, when Nate visited Madrid and made a complete idiot of himself. Wary, Charlie is surprised to find that he likes his brother, who is also going through a divorce, one that separates a family with two boys.

I will say that I was already having a hard time with this book at this early stage, and it may well have been an issue of timing. I was very impatient with it from the get-go, finding the dialogue strained first, and then getting annoyed because I felt I could see Bock’s manipulations all over the place as he put the pieces of his story into place. The book comes off as a series of set pieces, and most are misfires since they attempt to add some intensity and metaphor to the story but then Bock balks just as those set pieces begin to take over the story. Consequently, the intensity is undercut, the themes suffer in the background, and the novel feels uneven and unsure.


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