DEALING WITH LARGE ambitions has always been hard for Canadians, or so the mythology goes. Some human failing is bound to put us in our humble places if we strive to escape the ordinary. Myth or not, it's a state of mind that's beautifully encapsulated in Richard Wright's new novel. The Age of Longing is a moving story of a man's struggle to come to terms with the stunting effects of his father's failed dreams and his mother's meagre hopes. Timid and ambivalent, Howard Wheeler has an urgent need to confront the tangle of his past.
Wheeler, a 60-year-old editor at a Toronto publishing house, suffers a heart attack the same week as his mother. Hers is fatal, and a warning he can't ignore. He subsequently returns to the small town of Huron Falls near Georgian Bay to sell his mother's house, which stirs his memories of his parents, his failed marriage, and his two distant children.
Meanwhile, Wheeler's boss in Toronto sends him the massive manuscript of a long awaited novel by Harold Pettinger, an acclaimed writer who's been silent for 20 years. Pettinger's dedication to writing is a candle that illuminates the sorrows of the book. Wheeler reads the manuscript while researching his parents' history, reconstructing the unlikely match of a hockey jock and a prissy schoolmarm in 1930s Ontario. The parallels are eloquent. Novelist Pettinger, like Wheeler's father, fails at what he's tried. His manuscript, like Wheeler's mother, cannot help scolding the world.
Like all the characters in this novel, Grace Wheeler is utterly convincing, if not always pleasant company. Owning her own home is her largest dream, and her spunk attracts Buddy Wheeler, the town's star athlete. He loves Grace, dreams of pro hockey, and drinks too much. Grace can't abide liquor and thinks of hockey as a kid's game, not a job. Buddy makes the farm team of the defunct Montreal Maroons, past winners of the Stanley Cup; but, talented as he is, he hasn't the stamina to fight for his dream. When he fails at his first tryout for the pro team, he quits. "Perhaps he now realizes that he will never be good enough ..." says the acerbic narrator, his son.
There have always been thousands of young men like Buddy Wheeler in small towns everywhere. Good? You bet! ... that kid can't miss the major leagues, believe you me! Well, he can, and most likely will. Then he will have to settle for Plan B or C or D. Or no plan at all.
The reader feels the slap of that bleak observation. In the context of the novel, it's shrewd and telling, petty and truthful. For those of us not brought up on the myth of inevitable failure, it's a nasty, fife- hating remark, a cultural assumption. Yet Wheeler struggles to be fair to his parents and to respect their human frailties because they are his, and ours. The Age of Longing shows us this struggle, and does it with honesty and compassion.