by David Helwig
ISBN: 0889842477

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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 shop. 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.

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