David Gilmour's fourth novel, Lost Between Houses (Random House, 229 pages, $29.95 cloth), departs slightly from the downtown Toronto fictioneer's chosen theme-immature Hogtown bourgeois WASPs behaving badly, out loud; or, as Gilmour himself puts it, "liquor and chicks".
The novel still focuses on the upper middle class, but this time it is on the privileged youth thereof. Booze is still the lubricant for some crucial action. But narrator Simon Albright is not a jerk in training. Gilmour's lucky-unlucky hero, stuck in a hoodooed family, careens through his seventeenth year in the early `70s from crisis to crisis with scarcely a break. His father's been certified insane and is himself lost in-and between-both his own house and the bug house. An ex-stockbroker, he initially has enough money to beat back his demons in a private clinic.
Simon, first a dayboy and then (the horror) a senior boarder at Upper Canada College, knows enough about life to realize a few acerbic home truths about that charming institution. "God they were little, those kids," Simon observes of some younger boarders. "I can't imagine how their mothers could have abandoned them in a place like that. Like leaving a kid in a forest."
Simon's mother, a kindly, genteel drunk, is the most cherished member of Simon's puny support network. Harper, his older brother, is also not the most effective companion and solace. At least, none of the other family members hates Simon.
He certainly finds his girlfriend Scarlet more than a handful. She's a mess and is also selfish and insensitive, but he itches for her, predictably and unwisely-even after being classically dumped at the Canadian National Exhibition. To be fair to Scarlet, in other settings, Simon and his brother do spit out a set of mighty cruel lines about lost love.
Gilmour gets a passing grade for narrowly rendering period Toronto, as seen through the somewhat blinkered gaze of a rich teenager. This is not even regional fiction; it's flat-out parochial. There are dialectal glitches-the specifically `90s use of "duh" and "like" and the introduction of an incidental character whose uptalk is wildly anachronistic-and a few other questionable lapses in period detail; but these are not destructive.
Simon, at times not given to connecting cause and effect, reacts to pleasant or unpleasant stimuli in flamboyant, sometimes hormone-driven ways: running away from the cottage north of Toronto to see Scarlet in the city; going awol from school, twice-once to see Scarlet; getting drunk; getting stoned; getting hilariously laid or, to put it better, mislaid-just once.
Lost Between Houses, yes; Simon's lost between the security of childhood and the accommodations we all make that let us recognize ourselves as adults. Simon, and everyone else with three or more lines to speak in this novel, are lost-in their literal houses, at school, at work; not a mentor in sight. Even Simon's beloved mother takes off for Florida just before the final Chekhovian catastrophe. Mournful words and true are spoken by Harper, about the Albright menage: "Everybody here seems so warlike. I don't think I'm going to be happy till I'm fifty. I've always thought that. Even when I was a kid."
Having a dangerous, crazy parent will help do that to you, Gilmour shows; forget the insulation from discomfort wealth is supposed to provide. Simon sees through his father's insanity and pities him, even though he considers him an "asshole". For Simon, love is not enough; nor is pity, nor adolescent toughness, nor any anodyne, nor being smart.
Numb at being flung into something like maturity, he cauterizes his story, getting mentally ready to cock his thumb and hit the winter road again, having slingshotted back to the cleaned-up cottage after a brutal funeral. Perhaps he'll head out, anywhere, or maybe just back to school, in the city where his home has been sold out from under him. Simon's of course between houses now, but Gilmour wisely has him make no comment on his condition, lost or otherwise. This isn't the saddest story I've ever heard, but it comes close.