||Life At Second Hand
by Sharon Abron Drache
MATT COHEN`s The Bookseller is a surprise -a combination of send-up and sadness. The troubled protagonist, Paul Stevens, a clerk in Fenwick`s Used and Antiquarian Bookshop, gradually becomes reconciled to the difficulties and disappointments in his relation, ships with his brother, Henry, and with the great love of his life, Judith. He even comes to accept - believe it or not -Toronto!
Fenwick`s represents an oasis in the middle of a metropolis filled with various subcultures and suburbanites who have more money than they need. But the academic and literary life for which the bookstore is a haven cannot be truly safe from the alcohol, drugs, and illicit sex that are available everywhere.
At the age of 25, Paul Stevens is dissecting and rebuilding his life, which began with his mother abandoning his father for another man, and brother Henry becoming a substitute dad. Henry, a cruel person whose life is led by greed rather than conscience, has always been more tormentor than saviour: he gave Paul the nickname "Dungo Merde." But Paul rises above the "piece of shit" tag, and ends up being more responsible for his brother than Henry ever was for him.
Fascinating characters flit in and out of the book`s setting in the Annex area of Toronto: a draft-dodger from the `60s who now publishes a magazine and runs a small literary press; the poet Meribel, who combs the city for rare and first editions to sell to Fenwick`s; the owner, Professor Paul Fenwick, who has an affair with Judith, the employee Paul loves.
Cohen`s novel is fast-paced and almost thriller-like. Unfortunately, Paul`s coming to terms with the twists and turns in his life, after a leave of absence of just six months in Kingston, Ontario, is a bit too sudden. This one flaw, of pacing and length, is a shame - the frame of the work so obviously cries for more flesh, deeper analysis, more time to put the pieces together. Since we know Cohen is capable of writing longer works, it is disappointing to see him cutting content.
Despite this crowding of a grander saga, there are some very dramatic and witty scenes here. One can almost isolate them as a series of one-act plays. The scene of the purchase of books from the family of a collector of Ukrainian history who has recently died is fabulous - worth the price of the book! As always, Cohen`s use of language is subtle and poignant rather than excessive. For example, summing up the novel`s theme:
Once a book has survived its first owner and been sold for the price of a cup of coffee ten years earlier, it passes from the nervous realm of commerce into permanent golden age. There it finds true calm.
One would hope that Paul Stevens could find more refuge in the books he sells (Dickens and Flaubert were his favourites), but perhaps Cohen meant to emphasize that the bookseller is a handler or middleman, unlike the author and reader, who are true partners. Alas, the bookseller is an outcast.
In The Bookseller, Cohen gives us a bittersweet taste of Toronto - what`s on the glitzy surface and what`s beneath. A valiant and courageous exploration, but again, I do wish it were longer.