||All in the Family
by John Degen
BARBARA GOWDY'S STYLE IS HARD to describe without drawing comparisons to other writers engaged in similar projects. Her modus operandi is, much like John Irving's, to strain the credibility of her characters and their stories just beyond the point where credibility no longer matters. Irving is masterly at creating entirely convincing yet unbelievable characters. Gowdy is backing into this style, slowly working from unbelievable to entirely convincing, and by the looks of things in Mister Sandman she's pretty much there.
As well, much like Susan Swan, Gowdy is embarked on a very deliberate scheme to construct her niche within a relatively staid Canadian mainstream scene. She chums up a whack of new ways of seeing ourselves in, our fiction; some are more successful than others, but most are highly entertaining.
As a novel, Mister Sandman may strike those of plainer tastes as ridiculously overdrawn. I confess to the occasional flash of impatience myself, but in the end this book holds together quite brilliantly and delivers an engaging, touching story.
Gowdy takes the facade of a stereotypical nuclear family, the Canarys (Mom, Dad, three daughters, and a grandmother), and mixes in a healthy dose of the fabulous. In what has now become standard practice for this type of story, much of what happens to these people is metaphorically punctuated and set in time by reference to culturally familiar happenings. Marcia drops acid for the first time during the moon landing; the family's greatest crisis is speckled with televised reports about Watergate. Pulled out like this, these connections seem obvious, but Gowdy has a light touch that makes them work.
It is the youngest Canary who causes all the homespun threads to unravel. Joan is an oddity. Unnaturally small throughout her life, she is also terribly sensitive to light and sudden sounds. She's mute, though she does have a habit of imitating all the noises around her that aren't words. As well, we are led to understand that she is musically brilliant, perhaps telepathic, and unnervingly attuned to the little lies we all perpetuate about ourselves. In fact, from her first and only spoken words -- at birth, "Oh no, not again" -- to the point when her metaphorical purpose in the novel is finally pinpointed, Joan is little more than a paper-thin stand-in for the omniscient narrator.
Wearing her little sunglasses, she develops a knack for seeing into people's hearts. And what full and complex hearts they are: sister Sonja is a power-knitting buddha who finds tantric peace in her extreme finger dexterity, and whose only nagging insecurity is the not so hidden secret that she is Joan's real mother. Marcia shares a telepathic link with her odd little sister/niece, and acts out unnamed insecurities through startling promiscuity. Grandma is a crazy old widow living by herself in a moss-covered, frog-infested basement.
But the kickers are Mom and Dad. This is a marriage that contains not just one anxious, closeted homosexual, but two, who also happen to dearly love one another, and at one time in their lives actually had great sex together. Gordon Canary is tormented by his desires but not ashamed of them, and through Gowdy's skill the reader shares in both the anguish and the comedy of his secret. His struggle with a sexual drive he can't master has a wonderful whiff about it of classic pulp fiction, which is fitting since that is the very stuff he edits for a living. Hard in the Saddle is one of his suggested titles for a manuscript:
He was patting himself on the back until his secretary, Margo, in her customary deadpan, said she didn't think it would wash.
"Jesus," he said, suddenly seeing it. He was flabbergasted. "I need a vacation," he said with a feeble laugh.
"Or something," Margo drawled.
Doris Canary's hidden life is even more comical, but less filled with dread. While she struggles to understand why she is attracted to women and what she can do about it, she slowly turns into a more vital, interesting character. The marriage of these two very original, well-drawn individuals anchors the rest of the characters and keeps them from pushing the story too far beyond credible. Gowdy's portrayal of this confused and tender relationship surviving in spite of its near impossibility is the great strength of Mister Sandman, and makes it very easy to recommend.