FANS of the comic novel in Canada don't often get a chance to wax enthusiastic, because there are so few excellent examples. This one is a dandy.
Shall we clear away the superlatives and blurt out the bias here, straight out? Whale Music is the best comic novel since Douglas Glover's The South Will Rise at Noon (1988), which was the best comic novel since Michael Malone.'s Handling Sin (1985), which has been called the best since Joseph Heller's Catch-22. We're talking not of slapstick or the merely amusing, but of the serious novel that is not sombre, that makes you laugh while confronting reality.
'Me adjective "comic" is frequently applied to a writer in a disparaging way or as a synonym for "minor," (although exceptions are made for Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens), but "ale Music is a comic novel of the most serious sort. It's a book about music, fame, drugs, whales, sex, accidents, and money. That it evokes chuckles is a grand bonus.
In 1986 Quarrington was named one of the 10 best Canadian writers under the age of 45. Now, at age 35, he has published his fifth novel and sixth book. For a man who spent seven years as a rock musician, with Joe Hall and the Continental Drift, that's not a bad record, even without the 1987 Leacock Award for King Leary. It is not known whether there are any earnest Ph.D. theses being written on him yet, but that too will happen.
In this book, Des and Danny Howell - The Howl Brothers -were rock sensations in the '60s, contemporaries of the Beatles. Fame and wealth and drugs blew their minds. Des, who is reminiscent of the fat boy in A Confederacy of Dunces, may be based on Brian Wilson, the chubby and reclusive lead singer of The Beach Boys. Des ambles around his oceanside house, hallucinating, eating jelly doughnuts, and composing a rock symphony for whales on a monster Yamaha 666 keyboard. Intruders and the sharp teeth of life keep :snapping at him and force him into grim and funny grapplings with what the world calls real. To Des it is not always clear whether he is defending his privacy, fighting for his art, guarding his gold, or riding shotgun on a garbage truck. Somehow a whole plausible/ incredible world is created - which is what superior writing is all about.
Apart from warmth and laughter, the book is full of effective one-liners and aphorisins. When a demented singer proclaims an Era of Free Love, the response is: "Sounds okay. It's been costing me a fortune." Failure to do what his lover demands makes Des "suffer in a little hell that makes Hades look like Disneyland." With the whales, Des communicates. The book, like Des, has good vibes.
Unlike some of his earlier work, where his talent seemed untamed and his exuberance unbounded, Whale Music demonstrates that Quarrington can write a lean, spare prose. There is comic capering -and the rush of epiphany, but there is also a taut control evident here, an artistic restraint and even a suggestion of wisdom, qualities reflecting not just the craft of the entertainer but the confident art of the mature writer.
Moving from the humorous big boffolas to the wry and sly is a long leap, and Quarrington has made it. The book is a joyous affirmation of a major - yes, serious - talent.