by Eva Tihanyi
No word-mincing. If you read Tim Wynveen’s novel, Angel Falls (1997), and were wondering if someone who hadn’t published so much as a short story prior to that acclaimed, prizewinning, first book could create another equally successful work of fiction, the answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” Although Balloon (Key Porter, 344 pages, $24.95 paper, ISBN: 155263096X) is more straightforward and less ambitious than Angel Falls, it is just as compelling, and for many of the same reasons: Wynveen’s intelligence and compassion; his attention to craft while telling an engaging story; and his uncanny ability to capture those pivotal moments when the world is revealed to be other than what it seems.
The story focuses on Charles Parker Martingale, part-owner of a software development company in Toronto who is experiencing, not a mere mid-life crisis but, a full-blown quake. He and his long-time common-law spouse, Mersea, are in their mid-forties and have settled into a demanding, numbingly routine, urban lifestyle of long hours, frequent travel, and superficial socializing. Without children or even pets to bind them more closely, they have begun to lose touch with each other. Consequently, Mersea has decided to take a “time out” and has gone off for an indefinite period to Montreal.
In the meantime, Parker finds himself increasingly infatuated with Laurel, who works at the donut shop across the street from his office. Laurel is the opposite of Mersea in every way, which is part of the attraction: she’s in her early twenties, sings in an unknown fringe band, lives in an unsavoury part of town, and sports a nose ring. The only thing she and Parker have in common is that their fathers are jazz musicians.
The survival of Parker’s company is also at stake and with it his own financial security. But there’s an even bigger quake registering in Parker’s suddenly threatened world: his father’s announcement—on the first anniversary of Parker’s mother’s death—that he plans to marry Olivia, a poet with whom he has had a complex, forty-year relationship and a son, born the same year as Parker. “[T]he jazzer, the poet, the bastard son and the frazzled entrepreneur—one big happy family,” Parker bitterly observes. A man who likes to keep his secrets to himself and, by his own admission, suffers from an “inability to speak from the heart”, Parker is appalled by his father’s revelations and by his uncompromising adherence to a code of deliberately disorderly behaviour. Often it is Parker who feels he is the parent and Jack, the unruly child.
Wynveen is masterful in his depiction of the parent-child relationship—the wistful, ironic, emotionally tangled bond that even death can’t sunder. Parker remembers seeing his father with Olivia once when he was twelve, and realizing “that his two views—the telescopic and the microscopic—could never have prepared him for this sort of experience, the bald lies of a father, the destruction of paradise. There had to be another, a third view, that made sense of the dark middle ground.” It is precisely this middle ground that Wynveen helps us not only to recognize but to appreciate.
Wynveen takes the balloon image of the title as his central metaphor, and floats it through the novel, consistently but unobtrusively. At the beginning, Parker notices a balloon leaning against his mother’s gravestone and feels his own self inflating like “one of those monstrous figures that float above the street in Macy’s Christmas parade.” As the story unfolds, he feels more and more like a released balloon—no longer secure, set adrift into a freedom he doesn’t welcome and can’t undo. It is this part of the journey that Wynveen chronicles in Balloon, the part that begins in mid-life, just when you think you’ve finally gotten comfortable for the rest of the ride only to find yourself floating perilously far from the ground. And finding—as Parker eventually does—that the view isn’t so bad. Not so bad at all. •