"Their prizes, donated by the Fark Sewing Circle and Temperance Society and manufactured by the much younger wife of Rev. Ibsen, unsuccessful farmer, and former full-time pastor of the Christ on the Cross Scandinavian Lutheran Church of New Oslo, who, if she had a first name I never heard of it, were two pieces of round green felt about the size of a glass coaster, with the letters TUIT embroidered on one side of each."
IF YOU LIKED that sentence, you will love Box Socials, the latest offering of W. P. Kinsella. Set in rural Alberta just after the Depression, the novel is and here I quote the jacket copy -" a story of love, of the loss of innocence, of the value of community and of the bonds that hold families together."
Well. The book is also about several dozen families with names like Lakusta, Rasmussen, Skalrud, and Chalupa. It's about daughters in quest of husbands, about bachelors and widows, and match-making - at box socials where little boys bid on lunches made by little girls. It's about the promise - but not the delivery - of baseball. It's about characters with cartoon bodies: "a broad-backed man with a huge nose the color and texture of a red potato"; a girl "with a mole the size of a cat's paw just to the right of her nose, and one eye that tended to, at all times, look to the ceiling in the furthest corner of the room ." It's also about the art of story telling.
Box Socials, in other words, is about a lot of things, and therefore precious little. But mostly it's about the voice of Jamie O'Day, the narrator of this work, and if you admire his voice - as I clearly do not - then you may enjoy the book. But by page 14 of this 222-page novel, I had made a mental note: something to the effect that if the entire novel is written down as if Jamie O'Day was telling it in that longwinded, coyly repetitive style of his, I was going to scream. I was going to choke on all those commas. And scream and choke I did until the bitter end.
In both style and content, Box Socials reminds me of an element in the Icarus and Daedalus tale: an ant negotiates its way through a labyrinth with a silk thread tied to its body. Kinsella's sentences, like the story itself, retrace steps, fall back on themselves, lurch forwards and backwards, much like that ant navigating its way through the sea shell in quest of a little honey. Kinsella finds a phrase -"good old bring-on-blindness, logging-boot-to-the-side-of-the-head homebrew" and then hammers you with it. "Good old freeze-the-balls-off-a-brass monkey Alberta blizzard" is another phrase among dozens used like a cudgel.
When Kinsella abandons such striving for effect, as he inexplicably does at several places in the novel, the results are very fine. A touching scene, for example, describes the connection between young Jamie O'Day and a German immigrant who has just learned that his lavish preparations for his old country bride have all been in vain. There are other nice touches: a Russian orthodox priest "wore a black pillbox of a hat and a black cassock that swept the ground and hid his feet entirely, so when he walked across the farmyard he looked as if he was gliding."
What I have admired about Kinsella - the author of Shoeless Joe, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and almost a dozen other novels and short-story collections - is his imagination. Baseball, the game that has the potential to go on forever, has often been his metaphor for life's possibilities. In Box Socials, his flights of imagination take him towards self-indulgent caricature, and the baseball promised on the cover and in the novel barely materializes.
My hunch is that the novel is about rural pride - about the importance of appearances, about dignity in the face of poverty. Jamie O'Day's decision about which box lunch to bid on - the poor girl's, and not that of the girl who gave him a dime as a bribe - "helped him understand why farm folk would rather starve than accept Relief." Is this the little bit of honey promised at the end of the labyrinth?
My other hunch is that Box Socials was a good short story stretched into a novel. The result is like buying wine from a reliable vintner - only to find that the most recent batch is a tough and sour blend.