DAVID POULSFN's Don't Fence Me In (Red Deer College, 167 pages, $12.95 paper) depends a great deal on the voice and personality of its central character (and narrator) "Doc" Allen, a rodeo clown who is divorced from his first wife, living in his father's shadow, and ready for change. In the course of this book Doc pursues a new career, a new love, and a new relationship with his dad. Doc is good-natured and impulsive, and something of a smart alec. The voice in which he speaks is flip, ironic, self-deprecating, and often very funny.
Much of the book's humour arises from the interplay between Doc and others, especially his sometime roommate Doug. The morning after a very late party, Doc asks Doug where he slept:
Doug downed six ounces of Tang in a swallow. "I dunno. In the basement, I think."
"We don't have a basement," I reminded him.
Or this: "'Do you think I'm crazy?' I asked. 'Is this a trick question?'" There are episodes in the book that don't sufficiently connect with the rest of the story. A baseball game between a group of moviemakers and a motorcycle gang has its funny moments, but its three innings feel like a rain-delayed doubleheader. A delightful children's tale told by an old cowboy pal of Doc's father is very entertaining, but because of its length and sentimental tone, it feels as though it's been rather awkwardly wedged in. The book's ending is wildly improbable, which is okay. But it offers a transparently temporary resolution, so that the story seems to have been interrupted rather than to have been concluded.
Doc might not be the sort of person you'd want to spend the rest of your life with. But he makes a perfectly satisfactory companion for an afternoon's reading.
In Dawson City Seven (Goose Lane, 317 pages, $16.95 paper), Don Reddick also relies on the charm of a first-person narrator, but with different results. In 1905 a team called the Yukon Nuggets travelled all the way from the Klondike to challenge the Ottawa Silver Seven for the fledgling Stanley Cup. The story rates at least a footnote in every book dealing with the history of hockey in Canada. Dawson City Seven tells this story, at length, in the voice of one of the team's players, George Mason.
Unfortunately, George's tale too often sounds like the product of research rather than of lived experience: "Them Wright brothers flew their first plane that year, and 1903 was the year the first cross-country trip by automobile was made from San Francisco to New York." History enters the story in rather undigested lumps, as when a travelling companion relates to George the story of the Riel rebellion, with little to distinguish it from an encyclopedia entry. George also encounters in the Klondike a survivor of Custer's last stand who sounds curiously like George himself: " 1876 was one of the biggest years in the country's life. The year Colorado was admitted as a state. The year major league baseball began, in April. The year...."
Moreover, George is anything but a natural-born storyteller. His errors in grammar and difficulties with sentence structure are no doubt intended to add texture to the voice. But George also lacks a sense of drama: from the outset of the book we know that its centrepiece will be the concluding game. Most of the book's important events are sketched or alluded to in advance, so that the reader is almost never surprised. George doesn't even have the grace to be modest about his gifts: "Ha! That's my favorite Dawson story and I get a kick every time I tell it." The I, moves very slowly to a conclusion that the reader has anticipated long before. From her opening words, it is apparent that the narrator of Deborah Joy Corey's Losing Eddie (Algonquin Books/Thomas Allen, 222 pages, $21.95 cloth) is in a different league of storytelling altogether:
I am sitting on the cool green grass when Sister comes rolling in the driveway. Her husband is driving their baby blue car. When the car stops, Sister grabs the car keys and throws them to the grass. "He's pounded my legs all the way here," she cries.
The voice is flat and uninflected, and wonderfully adept at selecting and recording all the right visual and aural details to accomplish two things. First, to unfold the story of a troubled family in rural New Brunswick; second, to create a plausible and very sympathetic portrait of a perceptive, damaged nine-year-old girl.
The family reels from disaster to disaster. The Eddie of the title is lost after his unhappy return from the reformatory. And white Eddie is the family's most obvious casualty, everyone here is in some kind Of wilderness, and it is perhaps Mama who suffers most. If the book has a weakness, it's the predictability, after a white, of suffering. If things look bleak, they will get bleaker; if something terrible can happen, it will. There are so few happy outcomes that the reader begins to be numbed by the horror.
But the book is redeemed by the power of its narrator's voice. Corey has managed the difficult trick of capturing the freshness of a child's perception, bringing the teller and the tale to vivid life: "The preacher's voice is soft but the Amens echo around us like gunfire." The novel's conclusion is both wholly credible and deeply moving.
According to prefatory acknowledgments, Jane Bow's Dead and Living (Mercury, 224 pages, $15.95 paper) is based on an actual criminal case. While this might seem like a good idea for a mystery, it is in fact a dead weight the book never shakes off. The novel tells the story of Rodger, who has turned himself in to police after years of believing he may have killed a man long ago. The story's narrator is a naive young court reporter eager to make a name for herself - and to tell Rodger's story to her readers. Certainty there is some narrative impetus arising from the reader's desire to have the question of guilt settled. But the characters remain lifeless, with the exception perhaps of the self-absorbed and self-congratulatory reporter. The telling of the story is highly mechanical, alternating between courtroom statement and the elaboration intended to bring life to the documentary. Dead and Living illustrates the proposition that life is not necessarily stranger than fiction, and that what is factual is not necessarily what is most true.
If Dead and Living is too lodged in the literal, then Jean Smith's I Can Hear Me Fine (Get to the Point Publishing/Arsenal Pulp, 10 1 pages, $9.95 paper) is not literal enough. In a succession of prose fragments, set in such diverse places as "The Desert, Arizona," "India," and "Baltimore," Smith lays out a pattern of failed, empty relationships against inhospitabte, unattractive landscapes. Her most frequent characters are Claudine and Marcus, though Simon and Joelle also emerge from time to time. The narrator mixes sense experiences, so that colour, for example, often has some kind of emotional resonance. The writing is sometimes very vivid, but it is almost entirely lacking in context or literal referents:
Fan of sparks, flat against the sky. Falling back, not knowing there never would be new. Never would be. In the sheer