||A Review of: Duet
by Ingrid Ruthig
Carman, a recently widowed, retired cop with a restless streak and
heart trouble, and Norma, a junk shop owner whose mouth is as
unchecked as both her weight and her inventory, embody two lives
winding down. And since misery loves company, these two cranky,
abandoned strangers can't go solo for long, even though they've
convinced themselves that solitude is what they want. When they do
meet up, one expects (and gets) immediate dissonance. Yet, beneath
all that noise, there's music, as David Helwig fashions the truest
of voices with skill, unadorned honesty, and a clear-eyed understanding
of the human quirks that rise out of fear, need, and ambivalence.
Duet, Helwig's fourth novella, comes hot on the heels of the chewy,
intellectual virtuoso The Stand-In (Porcupine's Quill, 2002)-not
an easy act to follow. But Helwig, adept at creating characters
whose familiarity seizes attention from the first page, plunges us
into the consciousness of two individuals, and immerses us in the
sounds of a dynamic pairing.
Though crusted with life's battle scars, beneath the surface, both
Carman and Norma remain wounded souls; cast aside by family and
friends, they feel cast aside by life itself. Norma's one-time
husband left her for a younger woman, and her son, now fortyish and
not to her liking, keeps his distance. Burdened by unwanted pain,
weight, and the baggage of her past, she sits alone in her burgeoning
shop in the countryside north of Kingston, scrounging an existence.
"Her business was rescue, of the abandoned, the fragmentary,
the useless; her business was faith in unlikely possibilities."
Yet, perversely, she can see none for herself.
Carman, too, sees few prospects other than waiting for death. He
believes "[p]eople got what they wanted." Beleaguered by
a failing (maybe even broken) heart held together with nitroglycerin
and other medications, he tries to cope with the loss of his youth,
his wife Audrey, and what he views as his uselessness to the world.
"First time in his life he'd ever been able to sit still. Now
he was too tired to do anything else a lot of the time. His
restlessness always drove Audrey crazy He hadn't been trained for
this emptiness." Despite his daughter's concerns, he sells his
house, then gives up an apartment to roam the countryside in his
car, adopting a transient's existence, renting motels and cabins,
determined to leave almost everything behind and keep moving, even
if poor health slows him down. He goes to sleep reading paperbacks
"about the destruction of the world by new kinds of germs."
Although we become acquainted with both characters over the course
of the first few pages, each remains a stranger to the other until
Carman happens to stop in the village, then wanders into the junk
Within moments, Norma tells him that "the best decisions are
made in obedience to a sudden impulse," and backs him out the
door, thinking he wants to view the cottage she has for rent. From
there they launch into a barely civil tug-of-wills that compels and
repels each at once.
[Carman] "Why are you staring at me?'
[Norma] Am I?'
Tough tittie,' she said.
All right,' he said. Let's forget the whole thing.'
You're a bad tempered man.'"
Even though Carman spots trouble, he finds himself taking the cottage
anyway. Norma, certain that she's renting to a murderer, can't
afford to refuse the income. And so begins their relationship and
the riot of encounters that becomes their repertoire.
Helwig's narrative deftly alternates between separating and entwining
their voices-allowing each solos and full range, followed by a
mingling in passages of spare but charged exchanges. The composition
at times seems more a duel than the harmonious music for two
performers suggested by the title. Nevertheless, we are carried
forward, gathered in their bickering's push and pull. Sheer
bloody-mindedness keeps them going, and it's difficult not to watch
the scrapping and root for both.
At the heart of Duet lie the recurrent images of loss and
abandonment-cast-off people, objects, and lives; even the mica mines
that Norma shows Carman in some nearby woods are abandoned. All
these mark the human knack for acquisition and thoughtless disposal.
However, we're reminded that disposal doesn't negate the existence
of what's left.
Time's passage, the waiting that must be endured, and the contrast
between life and death-these are thematic elements which were evident
though less urgent in The Stand-In. Other flashbacks to the previous
novella appear along the way: in the mirrors that Norma avoids
because for her they only confirm the ugliness of ageing; in art
that speaks to her of possibility, which she comes to realize Carman
can't see'; and in beauty, of which Norma remains acutely aware:
"The sun was shining in the back window and making a pattern
on the set of kitchen chairs, shapes of light falling on the red
paint. Beautiful, you said, and then wondered how a thing got to
be beautiful." Helwig sets this image down in such simple
terms, we're surprised to discover that we may be a bit like Carman;
without Norma's help, we too might not have seen the beauty.
Helwig captures the ambivalence behind people's desires and how we
all must inevitably relinquish to time's metronome our false sense
of control. Ordinary observations, such as those Norma makes of a
local fisherman, resonate with a broader understanding that the
passage of life is just as mysterious: "It was always when she
wasn't watching that he arrived or left. When she looked he was
there, or not there. Right now, he was there, still, waiting."
It's not the bombast and blare that shakes us awake, but rather the
quiet, careful acuity. And amidst the bitterness, fear, and
anger-feelings as sure to debilitate as a heart or weight problem-lurks
a humour that keeps it all from becoming a dirge. Norma's solitary
"Day of the Bad Habit" plays out as a hilarious (and
revealing) train-of-thought riff of invented book titles:
"Sometimes her mind did tricks like that; everything turned
into the title of an imaginary book. The Day After InsomniaCars
That Pass, Cars That StopUnsuitable Activities for Unstable
SeniorsRetired Vice-grips and Other Questions of ConscienceThoughts
of Lunch. The Common Sandwich. The Gospel According to Mustard."
The characters in Duet seek rescue from abandonment without realizing
it. Both manage to keep others at bay to protect themselves from
further injury: Carman in his cop skin and always on the move-"there
was a lot that you didn't remember, as if, for days on end, you
hadn't lived at all"; Norma in her shop with her sharp
tongue-"Rage will keep you forever young." Still, despite
the barriers they've constructed, both find it impossible to escape
the pull of other people. Helwig offers hope that, for these
characters and in general, there's always the possibility of a new
turn even when the road appears to be ending.
The people Helwig creates in Duet remind us that we've all met
someone like them, in a place like this; maybe we even wondered
what made them who they are, or appear to be. And although it's a
great temptation to want the sparks to keep flying between Norma
and Carman, we're glad of the unlikely harmonies found along the
way. If there is a downside to this book, it's in the fact that we
come to the end and can't help but wish we could remain with these
folks a little longer.