THE JOURNEY toward "home" and "family" has long been a preferred route through the Canadian interior landscape. Family members' relationships with one another, and with the land, have been intensely and often elegantly depicted, as have the circumstances that rend families apart and scatter them across the land.
In Guy Vanderhaeghe's Things as They Are? the primary bonds are male. These are stories about male bonding in general, and the father/son bond in particular.
What is interesting about these stories is how fully they integrate a central vision. As always, the stories are polished, highlighting Vanderhaeghe's narrative skills and well-tuned ear for dialogue. As always, Vanderhaeghe takes time with his characters, allowing each of them to emerge in the most suitable time frame and surroundings.
And what does "home" look like to the lost sons of fading fathers? Or to a pair of aging brothers? Or to the substitute second-son of an idealized (and dead) older brother?
Usually, it is small. That is, it is seen from a tremendous distance, both temporally and spatially. In "King Walsh," a man watches as his aging brother, King, sells off the family home and goes to live with his son in the city. King then has to be content with the pleasures of mini-golf, where the tiny houses are perfect: "Nobody but him in the streets of Putt 'n Fun Town, everything quiet and still, the sun shining on the gingerbread house...." The town is "perfect" because it contrasts with King's life, which has become intolerable.
In "Ray," the title character remembers a pivotal encounter from his childhood. His father has resurrected Ray's dead brother's train set, and he turns it into a mobile bar, with Ray at the controls. Ray sends drink after drink down the line, the miniature construction a silent reminder of a lost, favoured son.
In "New Houses," it is merely the shells of houses that we see, as the Curlers Del, Marge, and little Sammy - watch new houses going up all around them. As they look at the prairie through the outlines and frames, the landscape itself seems altered: "Standing where they stood the landscape itself was changed, was charged with an unfamiliar and heart-rending beauty."
In "Home Place," Gil MacLean reluctantly gives a parcel of land (the old homestead) to his son, Ronald, when the boy marries, only to find Ronald running home to sleep in his old room when the disaster of his marriage becomes apparent. And, once again, the comforts of home are set in miniature. Ronald's old bedroom is decorated with the model airplanes he worked on as a child. Ronald is mesmerized by them, and explains to his father: "I like to pretend I'm up there, high enough to look down on something or somebody for once in my life."
Likewise when young Charlie and his Uncle Cecil are looking down on a valley, in "Loneliness Has Its Claims." Charlie notes:
Far below my feet was a sleepy river winking a semaphore of sun, a concrete bridge which looked like part of a model railroad set, a yellow road that switchbacked up blue and distant hills, a red Tinker Toy tractor raising dust in a black field.
These stories all play off the title story and its characters' attempts at Chekhovian objectivity: "The famous objectivity, the pitiless refusal to delude oneself, to see clearly and not lose heart...." To accept things as they are. For Jack Greer, in this story, the attempt takes surprising turns. For Reg Stamp, the con artist in "Fraud," it takes comic turns. But where is objectivity in the face of all this distancing and miniaturizing, this re-working of "home"? And what effect does it have on the bonds between the characters?
There are awkward silences when these men attempt to speak. King Walsh cannot tell his son what he truly thinks of him, and so he escapes to the streets of Putt 'n Fun Town. Ray must re-master his image of his father, which has been destroyed by his wife, Pam. In other words, was there ever objectivity? And what came first: the distance or the silence?
One of the loveliest, and most complicated, stories in the book is "Man on Horseback." Joseph Kelsey obsessively researches the history of horses following the death of his father, Rupert, an avid horseman. The research is a measure of the distance, the filter, that has always been present between the men. Joseph tries to get close to his father through the random quotations interspersed throughout the narrative. However, the narrative itself is primarily a series of flashbacks to key moments in the father/son relationship. For example, Joseph, as a boy, comes to this conclusion: "Somehow he understood he would never be his father. It was that simple. He could never be a man like his father. The realization left him bereft, made him cry."
The bond between father and son somehow survives despite this, but it is a wordless bond, and so when his father is discovered to have cancer, and Joseph visits him, they go riding and Joseph learns the extent of the disease when his father says: "I ain't comfortable on a horse much anymore."
This is relationship in code, a personalized code built up over years of observation and emulation. Joseph cannot talk meaningfully with his father, but later he does find, and cherishes, a perfect wordless memory of their bond.
Things As They Are? is not an argument for reticence. It is, perhaps, an acknowledgement that despite human failings, despite the imprecise and ill-chosen bondings between male and female (women, in general, do not come across too positively in this collection), and the hopeless silences in the bondings between male and male, there endure, sometimes, small glimpses of "home" that make the journey back worthwhile.