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No Redeeming Social Value
by Douglas Hill

ROGER CARON knows his stuff, his prison experiences informed an admirable autobiography, Go?Boy!, and a fine book of reportage, Bingo!. The fictional flatness of JoJo (Stoddart, 180 pages, $19.95 cloth) thus makes for a considerable disappointment. Caron tells the story of a young half?Sioux, raised on a reserve in Manitoba, who as a teenager is placed for adoption in Kansas and eventually jailed there. He escapes, returns to Canada, and has a brief spell of happiness before his life turns bleak again. The author's sincerity or his feelings about oppression and violence and joy are not the issue here; the writing and the plot are simply uninspired. The results are cliche?ridden prose ("Confusion and sorrow etched his leathery face') and a two?dimensional tale with comic?book characters and situations. There's an important subject here; it deserves better treatment.

Robert Maclean's Foreign Matter (Collier Macmillan, 237 pages, $25.95 cloth), by contrast, has almost no redeeming social value, as the porn patrol used to say, but it's so engagingly and stylishly written that its lack of substance hardly bothers the reader at all. The narrator of this farcical confession is one Tobias Tucker, a happily self?indulgent fugitive from the "it?isn't?doing?you?any?good?unless?it?hurts society." Maclean's plot involves a complicated scheme to ensure Toby's continued idleness with his 'Mate, the provisionally wealthy Marcie. The characters are drawn well, the locations (Greece) are convincingly detailed, the prose is witty and polished. As light entertainment, the book is a complete success; this is the funniest first novel I've read so far.

Cartoon Woods, by Richard Taylor (Oberon, 111 pages, $25.95 cloth, $12.95 paper), has its moments, but they're crowded into a slightly shop?worn frame. If you're going to write a novel about a woman who isolates herself in a primitive Canadian setting and looks for important answers, then you're asking for comparison with Engel, Laurence, Barfoot, and Atwood (to start with). And if your heroine's in search of the truth about her father, Surfacing is, well, there. On a' few counts Cartoon Woods measures up. Mostly it doesn't.

John Malcolm, the father, has killed himself at a cabin on the Ottawa river. Cora, his daughter, never met him; he refused to marry her mother. Cora (she's the narrator) stays at the cabin for a few days, goes through her father's effects, tries to find meaning in his life. She undergoes some traumatic experiences (such as discovering she is pregnant by her lover, who doesn't want to get married either), but realizes a measure of peace at the end: "I was happy. I had just entered my own life."

The novel is uneven. In a few places Taylor's prose is evocative, and there's a strong sense of mystery; in too many others the writing is simplistic, and stumbles over small banalities and large platitudes. Though the surfaces are occasionally compelling, there's no particularly original, synthesis under neath. And the dialogue is often inadequate. Cartoon Woods feels 'oddly unfinished, unpolished, as if the author hadn't quite the expertise (or the editorial help) he needed to carry out all his intentions.

"It was an awful and wonderful and frightening thing, being out in the world at 29 years old." This is the premise of Shutter Speed, by Larry Krotz (Turnstone, 242 pages, $10.95 paper); no smashing conclusioris issue therefrom. Danny Hinkle, the attractive if ineffectual hero of this somewhat diffuse story, is a photographer in Winnipeg who is unsure how to handle the imperatives of career, family, friendship, sex and just about everything else. Krotz has some sharp insights into personal matters, chiefly the relations between Danny and his aging father; his political and cultural reflections are drab by comparison.

For a novel about a photographer, Shutter Speed is pretty unfocused. Krotz's prose is enthusiastic, displaying now and then a pleasant youthful energy that may remind older readers of the Beats. But his plot isn't particularly tight, and sensory details are often blurry. Ile writing is imprecise, too: what are we to make of such constructions as "moist, humid air," "big windows that faced above the street," or "the heavy, bready smells of fresh buns and cakes"? This is a likeable book, but its flaws are distracting.

The Fungus Garden by Brian Brett (Thistledown, 127 pages, $14.95 cloth), makes no attempt to charm the reader. An allegory about the cycles of political oppression and revolution, it has elements of science fiction, dream narrative, and beast fable. Brett's; hero, John Kit, fleeing the robot?police in some totalitarian, technological future, falls into a world of insects, specifically a giant hive of termites. There he's shrunk, and given a species?change, and put to work tending a garden that records the history and future of the hive. Life below ground comes to mirror life above; Fit has "fled into what he was escaping."

Brett assembles his surreal tale with considerable ingenuity. His details of hive life are inventive; there is much gruesome action and striking scenery. Occasionally he forces his imagery, or stuns the reader with obscure nomenclature. I tired of a diet of words such as chitinous, pheromones, myrmidons, metathorax; I balked at "reptating over thin layers of tufa" and "semi?luminous sacs of asco?mycetes clining [sic] to the walls." Indeed, I have reservations about the whole project. Something seems missing from The Fungus Garden, or from my response to it. The broad outlines of Brett's allegory are clear enough; perhaps there's a specific frame of reference (anything's possible in provincial politics) I'm overlooking. Either way, the book's arguments seem reductive, sophomoric. The Fungus Garden is an interesting curiosity, but beyond the originality of its central juxtaposition it doesn't say much or do much (to me) that's either new or important.

Ladies' Night, by Elisabeth Bowers (Raincoast, 238 pages, $12.95 paper) introduces the Vancouver private investigator Meg Lacey, a fortyish, divorced mother of two with a black?belt in Aikido. What starts for Meg as a simple missing?persons case leads her into a murky world of drugs, teenage prostitution, and child pornography. The novel's backstreets and beer joints ring true; Bowers's concern with the realities of sexual abuse and heroin addiction is admirable if a couple of times mildly preachy.

For the most part Bowers writes a s1raightforward, nofrills prose. She can be longwinded; there are a few slow patches to slog through (usually when Meg is delivering her correctly feminist views on relationships, martial arts, childrearing, whatever), and some unlikely dialogue. But the book grows on you, mildly stereotyped secondary characters, homely subplots, and all. There's good suspense, and at its best Ladies' Night feels like a chunk. of real life.


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