by Gary Draper
DON DICKINSON does so many things so wellthat a reader might be forgiven for thinking that the things he does are easy.They aren`t. It isn`t easy to tell a story that moves forward with as muchenergy and sheer readability as The Crew (Coteau, 193 pages, $14.95 paper). Thecrew in question is a gang of part-time landscapers who are trying toSurvive a strike by doing a private deal on the side. With insight andcompassion, Dickinson explores the psychological and moral complexities encounteredby the aging crew leader Mike Kozicki and his cast of ordinary eccentrics.
Each crew member is crediblyindividualized by voice and action. In fact, much of the books humour dependson the voices, and the wit, of the characters and the narrator. Speaking of oneof the crew`s younger members, the narrator says, "Life fascinatedPaterson, and why not? He didn`t know much about it."
Dickinson is the kind of carefulcraftsman whose skill is evident in not being seen. Binding up such an array ofcharacters and subplots, the dangers are a loss of focus in the sprawl, or amechanical pinning together that shows all the pins. But Dickinson makes eachnarrative segment echo off its predecessor, and frequently connects one toanother with linking ideas or images. Thus one episode concludes: "That`s okay, Paterson told himself ashe rolled into bed. That`s all right.There`ll be time. Andthe next begins, "Kozicki was late, he knew that."
The book`s tone blends disquiet and grimhumour, both occasioned largely by Kozicki`s anxiety and physical pain.Dickinson, who is examining large moral issues in ordinary lives, instructs andentertains at the same time. The book`s themes are dark: loneliness, pain,moral disorder. But the wit is light, and the novel`s moving, well-managedconclusion strikes a note of hard-won (if narrowly constrained) optimism.
If Don Dickinson seduces his readers fromthe first page, Douglas How, in Blow Up the Trumpet in the New Moon (Oberon, 247 pages, $12.95 paper) begins his courtship lessauspiciously. For one thing, How`s prose is slow moving and quirky, and hishabit of omitting the subjects of sentences can be very distracting. Though thenovel is set in the summer of 193 5, the narrator introduces words such as"psychedelic" and "macho." There are other impediments togetting this particular Pegasus in the air. Character and place names are asself-conscious as the prose. The story is set in the town of St.Gomorrah, a town peopled with the likes of Albert Almighty and BlackbarryBabington.
At the centre of this coming-of-agestory are 15 -year-old Matthew Perkins and a horse named Pius thePious, who is stranded on the second floor of one of the towns publicbuildings. This is not a hook to win over its readers in the first few pages --or chapters. But it lumbers on, building speed and strength and energy until itis in full flight and unstoppable.
Why does this work? One reason is simplythe power of the central metaphor, the freeing of that trapped horse. Anotheris that, once the reader gets used to its tics and rhythms, the narrative voicehas enormous power. Indeed, there is a tall-tale quality to theinflection that perfectly Suits the mythic story thats unfolding. Another isthat the central character is portrayed with affection and honesty. Howremembers a lot of what it feels like to he 15, and he never condescends to hisYoung hero. Finally, this is a novel that is not simply exuberant --it is that -- but joyous. There is joy in the language, joy in the possibilityof human liberation, joy in the power of love.
This is not an easy book to quotebriefly, because most of its verbal effects depend upon momentum. But there areflashes of powerful succinctness, as when Coppermine Kate disrupts thesindrenched preaching of the Reverend Trembling Smith with her Outraged,liberating cry, "SIN MY ASS!"
Blow Upthe Trumpet in theNeu, Moon is far from flawless, and my Suspicion is thatsome readers will not he able to get past its stylistic idiosyncrasies. But itsambition is so large, its exuberance so palpable, that I`m ready to forgive iteverything.
Barry Dempster`s The Ascension of JesseRapture (Quarry, 258 pages, $14.95 paper) is also a book about liberation, butin a somewhat darker mode. After his father`s death, Young Jesse Rapture beginsto float. Literally. Aloft, he discovers he has the power to heal, at leastsometimes. Jesse`s mother, Tilda, turns to televangelism after her husband`sdeath, offering a particularly treacly brand of love. His grandmother Nana,takes refuge in the rage and proscriptions of the Old Testament. And Jesse`,,brother, Jacob, flaunts his own brand of nihilistic anti-religion.
The result is a novel that is virtuallyan illustrated essay on religious themes, an exploration of the nature of God,a dark parable on faith and works. Not that Dempster provides anystraightforward answers. Quite the reverse. Many of the hook`s events are, tosay the least, theologically puzzling, and there are lots of provocative one-liners:"God is not a social obligation," and "God is an effort that noteveryone will take." It is Nana who perhaps comes closest to stating thenovel`s theme: "`God works in mysterious ways,` she sighs, leaving out allthat optimistic stuff about wonders toperform."
The narrative pace is slow and thecharacters too much the embodiment of ideas to come fully to life. But theideas are arresting, and the hook`s propulsive metaphor and its touchingconclusion make The Ascension of JesseRapture worthwhilereading.
The quest at the heart of H. Nigel Thoinas`s Spirits in the Dark (Anansi, 219 pages, $14.95 paper) is more like anexorcism. At the book`s outset, Jerome Quashee undertakes a spiritual retreatin order to confront the ghosts of his past. They are many and painful, andThomas does an excellent job of demonstrating how they have conspired to bringhim to his Current state of emotional imprisonment. Jerome is Black, poor, andhomosexual. In exploring his past, he re- examines the heightening of hisracial awareness through his relationships with a young African visitor andwith his white schoolfriend, Peter. He relives his failure to find a fulfillingcareer, in part because a moment`s folly in school unfairly cuts short hiseducation. And he acknowledges the sexual desires he has repressed throughouthis life.
Among the hook`s strengths are a vividand convincing portrayal of Jerome and of Caribbean society. But Thomas movesfrom showing to telling, and from detail to summary, so that the hook`sintensity recedes as the story advances towards the present.
"Bevan Amberhill" is thepseudonym of two Ontario writers whose first novel, The Bloody Man (Mercury, 216 pages, $15.95 paper), is a mystery that uses Stratford`s Shakespeareanfestival as its backdrop. During a performance of Macbeth, anodious young cast member is murdered. The narrator is an actor- turned -writerwho is working on a biography of one of Stratford`s old hams. Soundconventional? It is: what would a mystery novel be without conventions? Butwithin the conventions The Bloody Man works very well. Thereis a cast of suitably dotty suspects and an adequate supply of perfectly goodred herrings. The book is charmingly divided into acts and scenes, and indeedis sometimes written as if it were a play, and everything is stagy, larger thanlife, which perfectly suits the venue. The collective Mr. Amberhill also has asly sense of fun. Among the dramatispersonae is ayoung stripper named Janie "Kiri" Ellison, and people say thingslike, "I barely understand how my microwave works, let alone otherpeople`s love lives." This is a bloody entertaining concoction.
In sharp contrast, Lesley Kruger`s Poor Player (Oberon, 216 pages, $29.95 cloth) has about it the aura offilm noir: moodiness, hidden thoughts, overheated emotion, and a pervasivesense of evil. The actor Jack Hall flees Los Angeles to fight for socialjustice (and redeem his life) in Mexico. Here he meets Hugh Bruce, the book`snarrator, and his life takes a direction very different from what he had inmind.
Though a question of murder ebbs andflows through the novel, its resolution never seems particularly urgent. If, asit purports to be, the book is Jack`s biography, Jack is just too shallow tosustain the enterprise. And while Hugh is no doubt an unreliable narrator, heis too colourless to hold the reader`s interest. Perhaps in the end the problemis that the characters seem like puppets, who move their lips but, becausetheir voices and acts seem artificial, never come to life. The tempo of thenovel quickens for a time near the end, and Hugh`s philosophizing conclusion isvery engaging. But it`s too little too late: Poor Player neverquite earns its own brooding atmosphere.
Rod Coneybeare`s The Last Happy Year (Hounslow, 189 pages, $16.99 paper) also seemed to me a book that couldn`tquite make up its mind. Set in the early radio days of small-town Ontario,the book is packed with interesting bits of media lore. But the characters arecaricatures who spend much of their time heatedly discussing or activelypursuing love, sex, and each other. The story is by turns bland andmelodramatic. There is interesting material for a memoir or social historyhere, but it is not well served by its fictional trappings.