I would not get into a car that had most of its wheels, nor would I eat a mushroom that was 80 percent free of deadly toxins. However, I often read, and even recommend, books that are just somewhat good. Alan Cumyn's Between Friends & the Sky is one of those, a likeable novel with prominent defects.
The book is divided into two parts. Part I is framed as a personal memoir about a boy named Jim.
As the story opens, the boy's father has just died, and Jim has been having sexual fantasies about his mom. Clearly, the household needs a man in it, and it is not long before one comes knocking on the door. It is the boy's long-lost grandfather, a grizzled colossus with "a nose hooked like a talon and a handshake of concrete and gripping eyes of blue set deep beneath protruding brows."
At first we are glad to see him, because without Grandfather we would be alone with that gloomy boy and his mother exchanging hard looks over their oatmeal. He gets busy right away, doing the things that surrogate fathers do: mending the house, dispensing advice about sex, teaching the boy to box.
Grandfather is everything you would expect him to be, brawny and gruff and a durn fool around women. Things take a peculiar turn, though, when he begins to fall in love with Jim's mother. She seems to enjoy the attention, and the boy is understandably freaked out:
"I became a young Prince Hamlet, brooding and moping and glowering in shadows, and this unthinkable attraction between widow and father-in-law became yet another gaping hole in our household that we pretended wasn't there."
The hole gapes for just six pages, then the mother forsakes her gigantic father-in-law for a medium-sized cabinet-maker. Grandfather greets the new man with the aforementioned "handshake of concrete":
"He and Grandfather stood for some minutes in the hallway, hands locked in a death-grip, the older man towering over the younger and yet not seeming any bigger. I've never seen any man return Grandfather's grip ounce for ounce the way that Lee did-in fact Grandfather was turning paler and paler, his grin fixed and strained."
If the whole book were as awful as this there would be nothing more to say. But, having deteriorated to this point, the writing begins to improve. What saves the novel-wrests it, you might say, from Grand-father's "grip of cement"-is a girl called Mirele. She is a new kid at school, the worldly and rebellious daughter of a diplomat. Because of unspecified troubles in her own family, she comes to live with Jim's folks as his "honorary sister". Mirele is another stock character (the Free Spirit) but her arrival creates tensions that the book badly needs. She sees to Jim's sexual initiation, sneaking into his room by moonlight. Jim likes this well enough, but he wants more. He wants to possess Mirele openly and completely. He wants to marry her. But Mirele she will have none of that. One day, she flies off to India, and that is the end of Part I.
At this point, Cumyn does something truly interesting for the first time: he changes narrators. The second part of the book is told in the person of a successful young architect named Garland Rose. Hers is a voice you can rely on, and the second half of the book is comparatively free of the small failures of invention that spoil Part I.
Garland is susceptible to flashbacks, mostly about her father, a fanatical golfer. When she is not falling into "memory holes", she works. Between one thing and another she has never found time for a love life, and at thirty-five she is still a virgin. One day, in a Yoga class, she meets a tall fellow with hairy feet who turns out to be an older version of Jim.
The rest of the novel is mainly about Jim and Garland's tentative romance. The story is sweet and believable, and we soon forget about the cartoonish exaggerations that disfigure Jim's memoir.
One problem with Jim's part of the story is Jim himself. Part II succeeds because it does not force us to inhabit his consciousness, to endure his stifling passivity, his naivety, his emotional confusion. When seen from the outside, he is fairly interesting. He has a personality. But while it is fairly entertaining to watch him shopping or tramping around in the snow, it is not much fun to be inside him. He has powerful emotions-they are always sloshing about in response to some crisis the author has inflicted on him-but, since Jim's feelings are rarely connected to the idiosyncrasies that make up a character, we seldom feel that we know whose mind we are in.
It would help if Jim's comments about the important events in his life were not so strikingly unoriginal. He looks for the universal in the generic, and comes up with passages like this one, in which he tells the reader what puberty was like:
"Everything was changing, including my body. Hair was growing...down there. My voice was low one word, high the next. I couldn't get used to where things were any more-lampstands were suddenly in the way; my feet found the legs of tables as I walked past; clothes that were fine three months ago now were ridiculously short."
Other growth-spurt survivors might see themselves in this, I suppose, but they will not see whatever it is that makes Jim Jim.
Part of the problem here is that the conventions of the coming-of-age story interfere with the author's ability to see things freshly. The problem is solved by the addition of a second perspective in the person of Garland Rose. This device transforms a very uneven memoir into a complex, layered story about adult love.
Bruce Taylor lives in Chisasibi, Nouveau-Québec.