It is always a mistake to read the promotional copy on the jacket of a newly published book. When the bumf and testimonial blurbs aren't frankly misleading, they create expectations of the book's contents that are unlikely to be met. A rave-up by the broadcast personality Ian Brown on the back cover of Holley Rubinsky's At First I Hope for Rescue is an egregious case in point.
Brown calls At First I Hope for Rescue "a remarkable novel", when it is nothing of the kind. Worthy it is, in many respects, and deserving of a wide readership, but a novel this book decidedly is not.,br>
Instead, what Rubinsky has created is a collection of five short fictions tenuously linked by the author's West Coast sensibility, her consistent use of persuasive, first-person narrative voices (never the same from one story to the next), and the connection of various characters to a B.C. lakeside resort community named Ruth, which serves as the locale of two of the stories.
Grotesques, cranks, oddballs, misfits, and the mentally unstable have their nests and burrows in this realm amidst what passes for normalcy, as do father-daughter incest, weary outboard motors, self-mutilation, motherhood, New Age mantras, small-town spite and gossip, bulimia, mid-life crises, Holocaust memories, infant death syndrome, and Fall Funfests. Throughout, the characters are believable, the conversational prose is suitably colloquial and engaging, and the scenarios are convincing. And though Rubinsky is a Master of the Usui System of Reiki Healing-which (you can look it up) "offers persons a way to mobilize the universal energy field within and around them to enhance the natural healing processes in themselves and others through the laying-on of hands"-where New Ageism surfaces in these fictions, Rubinsky treats it with the irony it deserves.
In the first story, "Necessary Balance", Bet Harker, aged forty-six and the proprietor of funky Cedar Hideaway cabins and camper site, discovers that, unaccountably, Nan Carmichael, her best friend since their schooldays, has been tolerating her husband's dalliance with her teenaged daughter. Both these adult women serve as narrators at different points in the story, and the small community of Ruth takes on the aspect of an additional character, whose involvement skews the tale's outcome in an unexpected direction.
Along the way, we observe elements of the town, including its political leaders, from Bet's disenchanted perspective: "The other aldermen, there are nine, all men, shift in their seats like their hemorrhoids are pinching. They're wearing suits, those that have them; Cooey, the machine shop owner, who keeps a couple of potbelly pigs for pets, is in a fresh-pressed cotton shirt, no buttons missing.
"Sam Hill from the Zoo Café has a rash on his dome that he gives a scratch, looks up from the papers piled in front of him. `Listen, we got other agenda now, Bet. It's not bothering you this time of year, the road'll be plowed up your way come winter and that's a promise. We have the FunFest to put our minds to and you give Clarence our regards and we'll be putting your request top of the list come spring."
The second story, "Algorithms", is set in Santa Barbara, California, where Nan Carmichael's sister's wish that she could catch fire and "get it the hell over with" comes true. Even before their house is consumed by a rampaging grass fire, her seventeen-year-old, bulimic daughter, an only child who can upchuck by just looking at a toilet at a certain angle, finds another, more satisfactory family among the workers at the Fourth Avenue Mission and food bank.
In "Fetish", an inventive, comic tale that begins in a trailer park outside Cottonwood, Arizona, Bobby, a goofy layabout, is discovered by his wife masturbating over their eight-month-old twins. In his own mind, Bobby, who relates the story, is not the really heavy dude that women think him to be. "Neither the wife nor Clarissa twigged to my philosophy of the thing. They didn't get that I loved the babies, the major joy they bring-from the whiff of their skin after a bath to licking a tear from their cheek to make them forget their little troubles. It's simple. There's ways you can get loving using a baby that don't, in my opinion, make you degenerate doing it."
This is truly New-Ageland and Bobby knows himself to be forever in the thrall of the several women in his life with their karma trips, fugue states, faith in deep trance channellers, past-life therapy, empowerment trips, full-moon tree-hugs, and "all that pop-psych puke".
"Road's End", the book's final story, is narrated by Matthew Fauler, Bobby's brother back in Ruth, B.C. and the proprietor of Sam Hill's End Resort and Boat Rental, otherwise known as The End. Lately, Matthew has been hanging around the place, analysing movies, "a sign I was in the pits. The characters, played by Matt Dillon and Nicolas Cage, seemed to do a lot of lying around between bouts of screwing, driving, or stealing. In the lying-around department I was simpatico with these modern heroes."
Into the picture strides a homely, prickly woman, looking for work, with her eight-year-old son in tow. Hers "was the kind of face that without extra help looked like it was having a hard life," Matthew comments, while her son "was charmless as a lump of unrisen dough." Notwithstanding these and other even more off-putting impediments, for no good reason our narrator finds the woman irresistible, and abandons analysing movies in favour of actively wooing her.
A fifth story, "The Other Room", while successful in its own terms, is an uneasy fit with the surrounding fictions. There is little irony here and less humour, and Maryrose, the narrator, appears to be college-educated, a rare thing between these covers. "Mentally wobbly" even before losing her baby-evidently, to infant death syndrome-she thinks herself to have died in a German prison camp somewhere in Poland in 1942, "alone and separated from my child," and to have been born again in the spring of 1943.
Now, from her window in the Frances Hill Retirement Residence on the outskirts of Ruth, she watches a boy in a nearby schoolyard that she thinks to be her son. Soon she intends to reclaim him. This is a credible and compelling depiction of a sensitive mind unhinged by the cruelties that life has visited upon it.
As a fictional creation, the narrator of "The Other Room" could not be more different than the zonked-out Bobby of "Fetish". It is a mark of Rubinsky's skill that she could fashion from whole clay two such real, but unlike, characters and reproduce so authentically their true voices.
If Rubinsky ever writes a novel, and here's hoping that she does, it's one that I fully intend to read, but without scanning the jacket copy first, especially if Ian Brown's in the vicinity.
D.G. Evans is a municipal politician in the small resort community of Orillia, Ontario.