||A Version Of Pastoral
by Dayv James-French
STORIES OF the Miramichi are not unknown to Canadian audiences: it's an ungenerous area that naturally lends itself to grim tales of spiritual bankruptcy. Herb Curtis presents a disarmingly atypical view in his oddly titled The Americans are Coming (Goose Lane, 263 pages, unpriced).
I mention the title first, because my major quibble is with the expectations it raises, cf. Atwood passim. Instead, the two Americans in the novel are an honourable, conservation-minded man and his daughter, who provides the love interest for young Dryfly Ramsey. They don't so much arrive as create a window to the outside world, away from the constrictions of Brennan Siding where "people couldn't understand foreign places, wealth and formal education, and thought it pretentious to even try."
There's neither nationalism nor malice in Curtis. His recounting of a year in the early1960s is pastoral. Even the salmon are fly-fished, not netted.
Fifteen-year-old Dryfly is the tenth child of Shirley Ramsey, whose absentee husband has left her the town symbol of poverty and neglect. His next-eldest brother, Palidin, reads books and is thought to be "fruity." Nutbeam, a huge hermit with floppy ears who befriends Dry and his best friend, Shadrack Nash, carries a torch for Shirley. These characters are "types," to be sure, but Curtis has a gentle good burnout and presents their lives without irony or censure. The novel is constructed as a series of anecdotes that move from person to person with no noticeable change in tone, but it's satisfying nonetheless. Predictability is part of its charm.
My minor quibbles are with a few repetitive technical devices, such as the irritating repetitions of a stammering character, the naive inclusion of "(hic)" to indicate drunken speech, and -- evidently Curtis's personal number for plenitude -- the phrase "forty-two-thousand-and-one." Those aside, The Americans Are Coming marks a successful debut.
Stories of mad housewives have become hackneyed vehicles for modern novelists. Joan Crate goes a long way toward making the subject new with the inclusion of West Coast Native mythologies in Breathing Water (NeWest, 293 pages, $12.95 paper). Her protagonist, Dione Harilumbus, is the daughter of a half-breed father who uses her inheritance of lore and legend to find reconciliation with her Greek husband, Jorges, while she wallows in post-partum depression. I say "wallows" because her hallucinations and loose grasp on reality seem all out of proportion to the slight stings and arrows of her condition: her husband is catting around, her mother-in-law refuses to address her by name, she feels abandoned by her father. In bed with her husband she obsesses:
I long to roll away from him, but instead I lean against his shoulder, feel the slick fabric of his shirt on my cheek, and concentrate on being separate, as cold-edged as the furniture and metal picture frames against the muddy night. I will not be absorbed into this room, this house, into him.
Dione resists absorption by sleeping with strangers, helping a man smuggle drugs, and learning to prepare Greek food. Crate seems to be aware of Dione's unsympathetic qualities, and after the dense, not-always-lyrical prose of the first third, the novel thins
out into an interesting examination of episodes in the lives of unsatisfied women. Unfortunately, the mythologies that knit Dione to her past are dropped at this point, to be picked up a bit too tidily to end the novel.
Despite the structural problems, Crate's handling of her characters is deft and insightful: Breathing Water is an impressive addition to the ranks of madding-woman novels.
Maynard Collins recreates the Ottawa of the mid-1950s with wit and sincerity in Death on 30 Beat (Deneau, 191 pages, $12.95 paper). As an Ottawan, I delighted in references to breakfast at Party Palace, drinks at the old Albion, and dinner at Imbro's -- the last two now unfortunately out of business. Quite apart from the accuracy of setting, however, Collins spins an engrossing tale of duplicity and mendaciousness around the hard-drinking and amoral Detective Pendrick Duggan, a man with secrets of his own.
During a heat wave, a diplomat who has been ordered to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee is found dead on the sidewalk outside the Chateau Laurier. Days later, a woman from the Soviet embassy is murdered before she makes a planned rendezvous with Duggan. When his investigation leads him to confrontations with the RCMP, External Affairs, and a slimy senator, the corruption is matched only by the Cold-War hysteria. There's even a bit involving Igor Gouzenko, and Mike Pearson walks through a scene with Duggan noting only that he's "diplomatic." Duggan is anything but in his marvellous asides and pensees: "The Irish put a lot of faith in music. But they
put even more faith in violence. And they put more faith in booze than they do in violence. Canadians don't put a lot of faith in anything."
Death on 30 Beat may lack the subtle complexities of Douglas Glover's Precious (which was also a first novel), but it's well told and damn good reading.
The history of Upper Canada is not exactly a colourful one. Beulah Homan is hard pressed in her efforts to create a textured background for the slight story of A Place Called the Ridge (Natural Heritage, 223 pages, $14-95 paper). In 1839, the brothers Gilbert and James Sandy leave England to start new lives as, respectively, a sawmill owner and a schoolteacher. With unseemly haste the sickly James is married off to the hired girl, Sarah, whose bosom truly throbs for Gilbert. Somewhat peripherally, the land is settled and a fortune made.
Homan's attempt to recreate the time is marginally more successful than her creation of characters. Perhaps aiming to suggest the formality and gentility of a bygone era, she writes an awkwardly stilted prose that is, at times, hilarious. Sarah's intention to attend her uncle's church after breakfast is met with "'Quite so,' said James and spread wild raspberry jam on a piece of thick toast. He hadn't expected such an announcement and chewed slowly on the toast, digesting the idea." When Gilbert inquires after a woman whose husband has just died at sea, her daughter answers: "Losing Father was a cruel blow and now her stomach is upset." But my favourite snatch of dialogue reads thus: "'Why is it that almost everyone likes pork?' mused Sarah. 'It is tender and juicy, I guess,' replied Betsy."
The delights of that banality, unfortunately, are not of wide enough appeal for A Place Called the Ridge to find many readers.*
The short list for the 1989 W. H.
Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award
will be announced in the March issue.
This year's judges are Merna Summers,
Katherine Govier, Wayne Grady, and Nigel
Berrisford of W. H. Smith.