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Absolutely Luminous
The winner of the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novell Award isDeborah Joy Corey`s Losing Eddie DEBORAH JOY COREY`s Losing Eddie, published by AlgonquinBooks of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and distributed in Canada by Thomas Allen& Son, is the winner of the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Awardfor 1993. The novel was the first shoice of two of our judges, and a strongrunner-up for the third. "Losing Eddie came out ofdesperation," Corey explains. "I`d been a short-story writer for awhile and I was thinking that it was time for a book, so on one of thosedesperate days I called Shannon Ravenel at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.After listening to me clumsily pitch myself, she said to send three stories andtell her why she should publish me. The three stories were narrated bydifferent young girls. After reading them, Shannon wrote back asking if itmight be the same narrator in each. I knew immediately that she was right, andso Losing Eddie began. "The setting isautobiographical. It`s the stretch of road where I grew up in New Brunswick. Iused my memories of place to wrap the story. I mixed memory and imaginationonto a page and ended up with a real person, the narrator. If you were to askme where fact stops and fiction begins, I couldn`t honestly say. To me, she isreal. I know how she sleeps, what her favourite foods are, and the way she`dlook at you if you made fun of her family. Is this why people write? I thinkmaybe." Here are the judges` comments on Losing Eddie and the other fournovels selected for the short list: Carol Malyon`s If I Knew I`d Tell You features the postmodern conceit of a beginningwriter sitting in a cafe trying to write a novel, the result of which is thebook we hold in our hands. Malyon appears to fervently believe in the"write what you know" school. The result is very domestic, quitepassionless, and modest prose about the comings and goings at the Civilizationscafe. We read about the lead character Susan`s musings, her husband`s recentaccidental (or was it?) death in a car wreck, the life of Cassie, a teenagedwaitress at the cafe, the various men and boys who drift through the scene, andthe impossibility and undesirability of contact with them. Malyon`s workimplicitly supports the notion that fiction is a direct transcription of life,which may be a common belief among some first-time writers. I don`t know;I always thought fiction should be better than life. Alas, for me, the resultsof this approach are static and enervating. Since it seems that almost everyreview of an Oberon book contains some criticism of that publisher`s eccentric production habits, I swore I would abstain. But when you have a long, slow-moving,rich prose like Douglas How`s in Blow Up theTrumpet in the New Moon, the minuscule leading and tiny type can drive an overworkedpair of eyes crazy. Unlike the work of the previous author, everything Howtouches turns larger than life, so large it strains our capacity for belief. Inhis 1930s rural Maritime setting, the characters have names like AlbertAlmighty and the Reverend Trembling Smith, making it quite evident that the characters aren`t supposed to be people -- they’re Values. Thestory is told in the present tense of tale-telling, though I could neverquite figure out who was telling it. At the very beginning, a horse named Piusthe Pious is peeking out the upstairs window of the meeting hall, and no oneknows how he got there. That`s a great start, but then the action slows to astandstill. The author is after the well-turned phrase and the charmingparagraph, and he does succeed. But, to sustain me in a book of this length, Ineeded more than that, despite the usually entertaining cast of holy rollersand backsliders. By the way, the title comes from the 81st Psalm. It`s just after the part aboutthe "joyful noise." I argued with nearlyevery proposition in Catherine Bush`s MinusTime. Maybethat`s a good sign; at least I was engaged. But disappointed, too, because I`dheard so much about this book. For me, it`s a classic case of telling asopposed to showing. I know the emotion Bush wants me to feel through hercharacter Helen because she tells me, but she never makes me feet. When the book (through alternations ofHelen and an omniscient voice) informs me that the world has become a puddle oftoxic sludge, I go, Oh, okay. Bush presents afamily vs. outer-world conflict, and to get it going, she`s come up withan ingenious metaphor: Barbara, Helen`s mother, is an astronaut trying to beatthe record for time spent in space, and her father, David, is a relief worker,always rushing off to a disaster elsewhere in the world. The real disaster, weall know, is at home. But having postulated this symbol of family alienation,the author goes on to overwork it, and the symbol never springs organicallyfrom the action itself. It`s hard to have a family drama, I might note, whenthe combatants (the parents) are absent. Having been told that Ms. Bush is astar in the Generation X writing crowd, I pondered the possibility that Ididn`t "get it" because I`m too old -- all right, Iconfess, I was at Woodstock. As an ex-Streetsand Water worker, I have a natural appreciation for shovel-leaners, so Iwas positively inclined toward Don Dickinson`s comic novel The Crew. To geta laugh you have to have good timing, and Dickinson does. The book sets down aclassic union vs. management struggle, with the little guys -- theworkers -- caught in the middle, in the person of one Mike Kozicki,who`s trying to make a little cash landscaping on the side, despite the factthat he`s on strike. He and his crew form a rather stock cast of characters:the Italian stonemason always spika lika this. The egghead keeps his nose in abook. The crazy guy keeps expecting his hallucinations to materialize frombehind a bush. There`s erotic sporting in the greenhouse. The comic tone issustained well enough, and Dickinson does do exactly what he sets out to. Butthe ending -which I won`t reveal -- threw me off stride.Kozicki reaches a kind of transcendence, and jumps right out of the world thatcreated him, and in which he thrives. Why? My choice for the awardis Deborah joy Corey`s Losing Eddie. Theshort, probing sentences in this novel are absolutely luminous, and the bookmixes compassion and observation a rare fear. We get the story through anameless (till the end) nine-year-old girl whose eyes are bothpenetrating and innocent. Since she`s in a book, she`s entirely moreperspicacious than your average child, but the author moved me to accept her asthe channel for the story. The plot is simple enough: the bad things thathappen in a rural Maritime family. There is a father who drinks --yet he maintains a loving relationship with his daughter. The mother isemotionally troubled -- yet she keeps trying to work her way backto her family. Because Eddie is lost (dead), the girl and her brother, Bucky,must hand together and recreate their own mini-family. The result is pityin the classic Greek sense: we feel sad for them, but we do not feel distanced.Corey has a lot of misery in her book, but she is never miserabilist (myneologism for glorifying the victim culture in literature). She offers hercharacters a kind of stubborn hope of redemption, but without florid optimism.And though her fictional family partakes of a long and busy literary tradition (The Sound and the Fury springs to mind, amongothers), I thought Corey managed to make the story entirely her own. Mostimportant, it was the book I most enjoyedreadingon the short list. The narrative is compactand muscular, cleverly set against the moral dilemma of a union strike, whenthese characters want to cheat a little, figuring they deserve it. Theirscramble for a small pot of gold, set against the ticking of time and conscience,sets us up for transformation, transition. But despite their vigorous seedingand planting, the characters themselves fail to grow. Although Dickinsonhandles accents and idiosyncratic speech with aplomb, the comic aspect of thevoices risks the sound of caricature. The rough-edged, unfinished qualityof the characters becomes shackled by their larger- than- Iifegestures -- one typically comforts an irritable prostate, anotheris accident-prone without relief. As they become familiar faces, theiractions become too predictable. We are told, not shown, how their separatelives unwittingly find their destinies. I remained somehow unconvinced. Still,I found this book generous in spirit, and enjoyed its ability to describe lifeas a gamble; I placed it second-in-line in the short list ofnovels. MinusTime, by Catherine Bush, hastremendous scope, but Bush uses ideas to generate action, rather than lettingstrong characters and events suggest a truth. There is too much "she toldus" by an astronaut mother, and too much introverted inaction in the twochildren, Helen and Paul, who have grown up weighed down by their own sense ofgravity. While their mother is seemingly a heroine, her closely watchedorbiting in pursuit of illusive freedoms redefines the constellation of herfamily. Their father has the vaguer outline, somehow failed (he too has a high-tech,moral-fibre job -tectonics/earthquake expert) but is neverthelessmore huggable, doesn`t lecture, doesn`t know all of the answers as to why hepacked up and left his family. I was moved by the sensation of sister andbrother as "old children," having been shaped by overzealous parentswho wanted a better world and screwed up their own private treaties with timeand emotion. Bush`s technique of "flipping channels" from scene onearth to sequence with parent in space, thereby connected to the past and still-whirlingchildhood, is very ambitious, and sometimes cluttered and distracting. In asense this book teaches by way of its flaws; in its eagerness to convince us ofa world growing amorphous and immoral through the use of technology, the bookabandons us when we want to be held close. If IKnew I`d Tell You, by Carol Malyon, has aserendipitous feel to it, continually leading up to the truth with an"either/or" form of riddle wisdom, and then falling short. Spare asit is, the book is full of vacillating statements like "it is so hard& so easy when men die." Although I had the feeling I was in thecompany of an accomplished writer, I don`t think the book accomplished what theauthor intended. I don`t think Malyon meant her minimalism to convey a slightstory, even if she did mean it to echo the touching, momentary insights thatinform relationships. The story felt self-conscious to me, like thecharacters themselves, watching one another in a restaurant, on the edge ofdoing something, about to, maybe... There was a feeling of suspended time andmotion and even character revelation that teased and hovered, looking fornurture, somewhat like the whirring of a hummingbird about a flower. But thereare no high stakes being played for here; we neither dread nor anticipate somemomentous change or unforgivable act. There are only lonely people who regrettheir inaction, who blame others (there`s a great deal of blame). Although thestory suggests that "deciding is the hard part," this fictional dreammight have drawn us in if decisions had been made quickly, almost invisibly,like the flash of a hummingbird, the rest being flight. Douglas How`s Blow Up the Trumpet in the New Moon, the saga of a smallMaritime town, is well served by its coming- of-age perspective --as a boy becomes man, the pain of consequences can scarcely be avoided and canmore easily be accepted. The writing, however, struck me as a bit posed, Anne of Green Gables-ish without the character of Anne tomake you forgive the long-winded indulgence of grand emotions. How`s bestmetaphors are the extended ones, of the "second storey horse" for example,around which marooned beast much of the action pivots. Instead of trusting toevents to bolster the flagging spirits of St. Gomorrah during the Depression,there is too much instruction by the author, i.e., the "historylesson" of community censorship as morality, the value of family in name,in deed, and in dollars, religion as a shoring-up device in dark times.The small injections of tension throughout -- a washed-outbridge, a returned prodigal son (perhaps thereturnedson?), the missing funds -- don`t seem urgent somehow. The text istoo rich in description, too patient in delivery, too righteous in tone; itcould have used a good editorial honing. Unlike the newspaper the boy delivers,the story never fulfils its promise of "magic" and "Liberation!"Losing Eddie, by Deborah joy Corey, isabout the risk of childhood. It`s a testament to Corey`s skill that we take therisk willingly in a bleak, poverty-ridden Maritime landscape, where beinga nine-year-old girt is neither innocent nor carefree. It seemsevery day is fraught with good and bad touches, a gnawing feeling of hunger orloneliness, sudden exposures to cold and anger, her dad`s drinking moods, hermother`s bitter sorting through the bad news about bearing children. Thechild`s eye allows for light, graceful prose, very sensory and impressionistic,with a wistful awareness of time: I think back further to when everything wasokay. I search for a loophole to let me out of what has happened. It was apretty good day up until now. Eddie got braces on his crooked teeth and then hegot his driver`s license. Daddy took Bucky and me for a walk in the woods andthe names of trees rolled from his mouth, elm maple poplar beech pine fir, eachone as crisp and clean as the forest floor. Mama made shepherd`s pie for supperand we had it with ripe tomato pickles and canned peaches for dessert. In its faithfulness tothe clarity and resilience that allow this young girl to meet events straighton, the book`s perspective and style set the reader free. The honesty of thewriting reminds us how we lose our childhoods and our children, in our desireto shape events, take control, make judgements. The book`s haunting message,delivered in a child`s surprisingly strong voice, is that we learn love throughacceptance. It`s an odd feeling to choose LosingEddie asthe winner; I felt as though the book chose me. Corey`s fictional achievementis in making this story feel somehow necessary, like good pain, like givingbirth. Two of this year`snovels, though very different in subject matter and voice, seem alike to me inthat both resemble poems. They are short, finely crafted, and have an impactthat is sharply focused. They are Carol Malyon`s If I Knew I`d Tell You and Deborah joy Corey`s Losing Eddie. Malyon`s book, wry andquirky, and with a sense of the comic that brings Carol Shields to mind, isboth sad and funny as it explores the vagaries of memory, among other things.The main character is a widow who experiences the present as a time withlimited access to the past. There is gentle fun in Malyon`s description of thiswoman`s attempts to become a novelist during weekly visits to a doughnut shop. This is a very shortbook. It takes a lot of white space to get it to page 142. It is also charmingand captivating, a small jewel. Deborah joy Corey`snovel runs to 222 pages, but it is set in the largest type I have ever seen ina book intended for adult readers with normal vision. No matter. Whatever itslength, Losing Eddie is a fine and moving pieceof work, for me the most moving novel in the competition. It concerns a troubledand tragic time in the life of a poor family, as seen through the eyes of anine-year-old child, a girl who is protected from almost nothing. Losing Eddie is a book of sudden andpiercing truths, as when the child goes to visit her mother in a mentalhospital, and discovers that "Mama looks like someone I shouldn`t talkto." There are wonderful portraits of family members, of strange anddisturbing neighbours, and Corey makes us sharply aware of how it is possiblefor daily life to go on in the presence of dreadful dangers. When I was reading thisnovel I wrote a note to myself that said: "It`s going to take some book tobeat this one." In the end it did not make it to the top of my list,something that I regret. Losing Eddie is a novel that deserves tobe celebrated. The other three novelsare larger in scope than Malyon`s and Corey`s, if not always better works ofart. They come closer to being what Mario Vargas Llosa calls "the totalnovel," which he defines as a novel "that pretends to embrace thewhole reality-" Two of them, DonDickinson`s The Crew and Douglas How`s Blow Up the Trumpet inthe New Moon, are long comic novels, one of the hardest ofliterary forms to make work ... humour being a thing that tends to resist length. (It also seems to me totake more high spirits and invention to fill 200 comic pages than 200"straight" pages.) Dickinson`s book is themore straightforward. It concerns a work crew striving against all odds to meeta deadline. It is well crafted, well written, and gives a good deal ofpleasure. How`s, which is set in the Maritimes during the Depression, is inpart a coming-of-age story ... but it also rides off ina number of other directions. It occurs to me thatcomic novels almost inevitably enter a competition like this at a disadvantage,in that men and women tend to laugh at different things, and judges --inevitably -- are gender-specific beings. I admiredDickinson`s novel, but it seemed to me that a male reader might have laughedharder and oftener than I did. I liked How`s book best when it wasn`t beingfunny -- it contains some wonderful evocations of a lost ruralworld -- and regretted that it spent so much of its time going inthe other direction. It seemed to me like a novel from another era, when ahumorist expected to work hard. (There is a town called St. Gomorrah, and ahorse called Thrombosis, to give you some idea.) Still, there is nothing so individualas what makes us laugh. I could imagine this story being read aloud to theright audience and producing a chorus of guffaws ... so the lack may be inthe funny bone of this reader. The novel that gets mytop vote is Catherine Bushs Minu`s Time, which is set in the nearfuture but presents a world that is already with us. Bush inhabits her own timeand place in a way that few novelists are able to do. Her book explores theauthentic and inauthentic in modern life, while giving us an interesting studyof the problems involved in being the child of an over-achieving parent. Something must also besaid about Bush`s scope. Big is not always better than small, but there is acumulative effect to the big and daring novel, a lift of joy when the writer drawsa circle around an enormous territory and then manages to fill it with livingbeings and get the whole business levitating. For most of the book thecharacters` actions are not explained, and this allows them to expand in thereader`s mind, inviting speculation in exactly the same way that the actions ofreal people do. I was sorry that the author permitted her characters to definethemselves to one another in the closing chapters. I would have preferred themto remain elusive, so that I would want to go on thinking about them after thenovel was finished. But that, too, may be a matter of private taste. There can be no doubtthat Minus Time represents the firstpeaking of a remarkable writing talent. And those of us who note from the book jacket that Catherine Bush was born in 1961 canjust eat our hearts out.

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