THE AIR IN CANADA must be good for writers. Clearly, it's keeping them young. The season includes a new novel from Morley Callaghan at 85 (A Wild Old Man on the Road); Pierre Berton, at 68, is just hitting his stride (The Arctic Grail); and now W. 0. Mitchell, at 75, offers us his best work since the 1947 classic, Who Has Seen the Wind.
Ladybug, Ladybug . . . is a wonderful mixture of life, laughter, and reflection. There should be some advantages to getting older, something to compensate for the creaky joints. No young writer could have written this novel - part thriller, part comic romp - and chinked its cracks with wisdom.
The novel's protagonist and central voice is a 78-year-old retired professor recently evicted from his office in a nasty bit of university politics. Kenneth Lyon has been working for years on a biography of the American humorist Mark Twain, alias Samuel Clemens. Lyon talks to "old Sam," and to himself, a privilege of age. The two men share attitudes and experiences that encourage Lyon to dip into his own memories. Inside every biographer, he believes, is an autobiographer struggling to get out.
The action moves into high gear when Lyon places an ad in the Personals for a housekeeper/companion: "Wanted: One human. By slightly vulgar, occasionally foul-mouthed, literate, impatient and self-centred, senior citizen male, desiring good companion. Drinking and smoking, non-laconic agnostic preferred. . . ." And guess who turns up? A snooker-playing, foul-mouthed actress named Nadya with a five-year-old daughter, Rosemary, who reminds Lyon of his little girl, lost in the Canadian Rockies long ago at the same age.
The three form an off-beat family unit, a non-nuclear family like so many in modem America. Humour reigns, as the two feisty characters (three, counting "Sam" Clemens) play pool and ham it up. Then terror strikes with the introduction of a psychopath, a demented young man who is about to graduate from Livingstone University and who has it in for Nadya. She has refused his sexual advances in a rather spectacular way.
Charles Slaughter, the product of a loveless household that ran on violent discipline, and guilt, hates and despises everyone he meets. Immune to pity or love, he lives within four psychic walls of his own making. Slaughter's twisted faith (he talks to a satanic "Father" in a parody of prayer) seems linked to a vengeful Jehovah and the kind of religious fundamentalism that has been the target of Mitchell's satire in earlier work.
Thanks to Slaughter's ominous designs on Nadya and Rosemary, the novel has more raw suspense than any I have read for some time. To call it a page-turner is an understatement. Since you'll want to read it yourself, let me just save some wear and tear on your fingernails by telling you that it ends happily.
Mitchell's handling of voice in this novel is adroit and complex. literally, the narration is in the third person. Effectively, Mitchell allows us to enter the, heads of several characters, principally Lyon and Slaughter, and to share their thoughts as if they were talking to themselves. Margaret Laurence managed a similar trick in The Diviners.
The novel ranges over several cities in Canada and the States, following Lyon's experience as a professor. The basic setting is the unnamed Western Canadian city of Lyon's retirement, no part of which is far from the surrounding prairie that he (and Mitchell) roamed in youth.
Thoughts of Mark Twain take Lyon back to his own childhood, especially to the year when an injury kept him out of school. "He traded tame for wild, and sought not town but foothills companions: killdeer, meadowlark, goshawk, redwinged blackbird, ground owl. He had found much sweetness and much light out there, but there had also been the dry husks of dead gophers, with or without their tails, crawling with ants and carrion flies and undertaker beetles. The black margins were ruled by the barbed wire fences, impaled with butterflies, grasshoppers, perhaps field-mice, the shrike's supermarket."
Passages like this carry both the lyricism of Who Has Seen the Wind and the dark undertones of How I Spent My Summer Holidays (1981). Jacket copy for Ladybug aptly calls it a novel that deals with "the heart of darkness." Slaughter's vindictiveness, and an aging man's preoccupation with death, "the mysterious stranger," are dark notes. They are echoed in small touches ranging from Lyon's early morning temper to Rosemary's childish desire to revenge herself on a squirrel that bit her thumb.
Of course the novel contains the set pieces that are Mitchell trademarks, small farces destined to be read aloud to large audiences. These include Ken's outsmarting of his younger brother when the two boys compete for peanut butter; and an outdoor birthday party enlivened by the local brat's creative use of a garden hose.
The parallels between Mitchell, his protagonist, and the humorist Mark Twain add considerably to the fun and fascination of this novel. Mitchell is by no means the first to publish a novel whose protagonist is a working biographer. He makes, however, excellent use of the possibilities inherent in the scheme. Lyon observes that three-quarters of a century separate him from "Sam," but this period is close to the historical difference in frontier time between the Canadian foothills of his boyhood and the Mississippi Valley. "You and young Clemens," Lyon tells himself smelled and tasted and touched and saw and heard a similar New World before man could badly scar your patch of the earth's skin. Both of you obeyed and disobeyed the same Lockean sthoolmaster, were slate children upon whom adults, could write whatever they pleased.
Like Mark Twain, Mitchell has a serious side. Lyon and "Sam" agree that humans live by bridges of love that link the islands of loneliness: "We are the only animals who paint, sing, sculpt, compose, I worship - all bridges." Lyon's final blessing on "Sam" is the verdict that he was "one hell of a fine performer on paper or on the boards, playing to sell-out houses, bringing laughter and insight to readers and listeners all over the world." Amen. It might well be a description of Mitchell himself.