THERE ARE some writers who come winging in on you on the first-page and then just never let up. Barbara Gowdy is one of these. She knows how to move a story along, and Failing Angels is an amazing story: full of surprises, and alternating between horror and high comedy. It is rather as if Jayne Anne Phillips and Anne Tyler were holding the same pen.
Failing Angels concerns the family life of five of the most interesting characters to walk the pages of recent fiction. There is an alcoholic mother who gets dressed only once a year, and. a father who gave his wife a kidney stone in lieu of an engagement ring - a driven, compulsive, and sometimes dangerous man. The three sisters who are the novel's central characters improvise their way through life in a way that is both funny and desperate, and causes us to hope that human beings may be tougher than we had thought.
It is one of the sisters who defines their situation: "This house is like a dangerous country that is ruled by a despot and founded on an historical calamity."
The despot is their father - who reminded me of the tyrannical father in Paul Theroux's novel Mosquito Coast and the historical calamity is something that happened before the sisters were born. Their mother dropped, or just possibly threw, her infant son into Niagara Falls.
The sisters run the household, preparing meals out of cans, making sure that their mother has liquor, holding her down when she wants to climb up onto the roof. It. is a tribute to Gowdy's skill as a writer that the reader finds a strange kind of normality in this bizarre -household. We are persuaded, somehow, to take for granted the things the sisters take for granted.
The unifying images of the novel are of rising and falling and being swept away, but there is one other striking image: of one of the sisters driving the family car with the windshield fogged over, guessing at where the road may be. The image could stand for the sisters' lives as a whole.
Gowdy has perfect pitch where adolescents are concerned. To be an adolescent is to live without benefit of experience or sometimes (in the case of the self-brought-up) even ordinary information, The sisters meet the situations they encounter with reactions that are unexpected, absurd, and perfectly logical. Their lives are calm when their father has a "sweetie pie," hell on earth when he has not. Inevitably, it seems, he tries to turn the fat daughter, Norma, into his lover. This chapter is one of the most powerful in the book. The final scene did not quite work for me, but it was the only one that did not. This is a dazzling novel: shrewd, tragic, and funny all at the same time.
Midnight Twilight Tourist Zone, which I also liked, is a book with a very different sort of internal temperature. It is a story of the paranormal, told in the most matter-of-fact prose: as if magic realism had taken up residence in the Alberta bush.
A district health nurse named Rosalie makes a routine call at a shack in the bush, and discovers that she has a curious psychic bond with - and physical attraction to - the filthy old man who lives there. But Josef, as it turns out, is more than a dirty old reprobate. He is, or can become, almost anything at all.
Sharon Riis is interested in transformations, in the idea of what might be called migratory consciousness. The two main characters both go through several transformations in the course of the book, becoming people that we understand have a historical reality, and participating in vignettes that stretch back in time to when the great smallpox plagues were sweeping the plains. Rosalie tells us about both the surreal and the simply amazing in the same forthright, slangy speech.
Sex is the little engine that tugs the story along. There is a three-in-the-bed scene in which Rosalie tells herself: "Don't worry, have fun, you won't die from it." What the reader all but forgets is that the third participant, Wanda, is a kind of apparition, a woman who is dead ... but not at this moment, apparently.
Riis's novel is a hard one to sum up. It's a ghost story, but in the same sense that the great Mexican writer Juan Rulfo wrote ghost stories. It is also quirky, salty, and filled with pithy observations. 'Mere is even an implied verdict on a couple of the approaches to life available to women in the 1980s. Wanda, who has encased her life in dull ritual, is contrasted with Rosalie, ex-hippie and woman of appetites.