If there was a Pretentious Title Contest, Anxious Gravity, by Jeff Wells (Dundurn, 342 pages, $19.99, ISBN:0889242992), would be on the short list. It is, like many first novels, highly uneven, with a gullible and not very likable protagonist. A Toronto boy, 16-year-old Gideon, after something he mistakes for a religious miracle, enrolls in an unaccredited school, the Overcomer Bible Institute of Three Trees, Alberta. Could it be a parody of The Three Hills Bible Institute, which gave us Stockwell Day? (the world is only 4000 years old). The satire is pretty weak and there is too much soul searching, and too much emphasis on sex, or the lack of it, until three melodramatic events¨involving a disturbed student with a power drill, Gideon's seduction by a female teacher, and a pair of smarmy Siamese-twin evangelists¨ends Gideon's stay at the institute. The story just rambles on indiscriminately after that. Gideon's friendship with a free-spirited girl, Oppie, takes up many pages while they compare the various ways their hearts have been broken. Over the years I have kept examples of odd phrasing from manuscripts like "He snorted mentally." or "She listened with all her ears." Here Gideon tells us, "I slouched inwardly." Also, when one cries, one BAWLS, not BALLS. It is also painfully obvious that whoever wrote the publicity handout has never read the book. Gideon's fanatically religious mother and his slowly dying grandmother make cameo appearances. Oppie is the only character that really comes alive, and an ambiguous ending indicates that they may eventually become a couple. One wonders if Oppie couldn't do a lot better.
Astral Projection by Edward O'Connor (Random House Canada, 242pages, $32.95, ISBN:0679311157), is another finalist for the Pretentious Title Contest, though it has an interesting jacket designed by Daniel Cullen. Set in humid Miami in the 1960s O'Connor tells the crackling coming-of-age story of Goodwin DeFoe, a mixed up teenager whose violent alcoholic parents conduct battles that make war-time Vietnam sound safer. Goodwin decides to take up the guitar and his first teacher Chuck Buffington is "A poor man, so poor in fact that on days he gave lessons he had to ride a bicycle from his rented bungalow in the black part of Coconut Grove all the way down to the music store in the Dadeland mall. . ." Buffington is also a drinker, repeatedly married, terminally broke, but a genuine musical talent. Music becomes Goodwin's savior, making his troublesome adolescence and traumatic home life tolerable. Buffington becomes both friend and father figure, until Goodwin clearly surpasses him as a guitarist, and Goodwin's insane parents take their destructive behavior to a higher level. The writing is clear and in some ways musical, and while the story is sometimes tough to bear, Goodwin and Buffington are worth cheering for.
The Stubborn Season by Lauren B. Davis (HarperFlamingoCanada, 340pages, $32.95, ISBN: 0002005028), tells two separate stories that eventually converge. The tale begins in 1929 in Toronto where ten-year-old Irene McNeil lives with her parents, her father a failed pharmacist who likes to drink, and her exasperatingly horrible mother, who has driven the father to drink. She is depressed, deranged, agoraphobic, selfish beyond belief, making Mommy Dearest look sweet. The second character is David Hirsch, a fourteen-year-old from a Jewish immigrant family in rural Saskatchewan. David strikes out on his own, riding the rails across the country so there would be one less mouth to feed on their dying farm. Not since Barry Broadfoot's Ten Lost Years has there been such a compelling portrait of Depression era Canada. Irene suffers in silence, while David becomes involved in various labor movements, meeting Irene's uncle, a labor organizer, along the way, and finally bringing news of the uncle to Irene's family in Toronto in the mid-1930s. David holds out hope that better times will come. Irene, for all that she has put up with has a remarkably tolerant view of her mother: "The only thing worse than being around my mother is being my mother." Others would not be so charitable for this supremely manipulative, self-absorbed woman is one of the most evil characters in recent fiction. David and Irene become romantically involved, but they face a difficult and uncertain future mainly because of the ingrained prejudice in Canadian society, that does not appear likely to abate. The writing is strong and sure-handed, the characters well drawn and memorable. There was only one misstep, in 1930 Irene begs her father to play Scrabble with her, some 25 years before the game was marketed.
Live by Request by Rob Payne (HarperFlamingoCanada, 246pages, $24.95, ISBN: 0006391745) is an innocuous little novel about a hapless band called Archangel, playing a Sunday night gig at a listless pub. One member, Jay, a slacker college dropout, is a bartender at the club, and much of the story is about his developing relationship with the bassist, a girl named Jan. With names like that it takes 50 pages to figure who is who. It is very difficult to write a novel about musicians for no matter how many band names they drop it is impossible to remember who they like or don't like, and it is impossible to translate their style, whatever it might be to the page. There is a little bit of humor when they try to pass themselves off as a Christian rock group, and creepy fundamentalist Christians take a few well placed hits. One of the tenets of novel writing is that the author picks up characters at a moment when everything they do is vitally important. Here are some of Jay's observations that turn the novel into an advertisement for blandness: "...I've spent most of my life trying not to be engaged in anything remotely controversial, and I don't plan to end that streak now." "You'll come to realize that I'm basically a boring guy who loves music and movies and spends most of his time doing very little." "Life proceeds at its mundane pace. As usual, I've made no significant changes." The last quote is from the final page and sums up the story better than any reviewer could.
The Sudden Weight of Snow by Laisha Rosnau (M & S, 341pages, $34.99, ISBN:0771075804), features an exquisite jacket designed by K. T. Njo, and while the story has a great deal going for it, like most first novels it also has a number of drawbacks. Here we have the female coming-of-age story of 17-year-old Harper Kostak who lives with her divorced mother and younger brother in a town in the BC interior called Sawmill. While Harper and her friend Krista go through the usual teenage rebellions¨drugs, liquor, sex, shoplifting¨a parallel narrative tells the story of Gabe, a young man born on an arts commune near Sawmill, who moved to California with his father when his parents split up. We are also told the life story of Harper's mother Vera, which is probably the most interesting part of the book, and might in itself be a novel. Vera involves herself and Harper in a group of creepy fundamentalists who while professing goodness and love are true hypocrites. I notice that three of the five books reviewed here take shots at fundamentalist Christians, never a bad idea because they make themselves despicable by trying to force their peculiar views on others. But enough is enough, I suggest authors look for another punching bag. Gabe moves back to BC to live with his mother in the commune and he meets Harper and they develop a relationship. There is a tremendous amount of alcohol and drug use in the novel, probably not unlike in real life. However, I believe authors would do well to consider that ultimately drunks and druggies are only interesting to other drunks and druggies, two groups of people that don't buy books. Incidentally Motel 6 do not have franchises in BC. I digress. There is an inevitable tragedy that just doesn't sit quite right, not enough motivation to justify the drastic action. Still, Rosnau is an excellent writer, some of her characters are memorable and she has the possibility of becoming a major Can Lit star. Anne Tyler was an interesting novelist to watch develop from the baby steps of If Morning Ever Comes to the brilliance of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I would equate The Sudden Weight of Snow with Tyler's fourth novel, Earthly Possessions, giving Rosnau a head start at fame.
W. P. Kinsella is taking in the West Coast Scrabble Championships in Reno.