by Gary Draper
CAROLINE WOODWARD`s The Alaska Highway Two-Step (Polestar/Raincoast, 130 pages, $14.95 paper) has a number of things going for it: that catchy title, the eccentric, earthy voice of the book`s narrator, Mercy Brown, and sturdy, serviceable prose throughout. The book is a braid of three narratives. The story that lies at the centre is Mercy`s journalistic tour of the Alaska Highway. Interrupting that narrative line with vivid flashes are the dreams/visions Mercy keeps having, which intimate some kind of environmental disaster. Thirdly, Mercy is reading the diaries of her Aunt Ginger, a pioneering dancer and choreographer. For a long time, it looks as though these story lines will have nothing in common. For most of the book, in fact, it seemed one might scoop Ginger`s diaries right out of the novel without damaging it at all. In the end Woodward does manage to tie all three together, with a good deal of excitement - and perhaps just a bit too much neatness.
Of the three, it seemed to me the travel narrative moved the slowest. It`s hard to avoid the suspicion that there are times when Woodward is merely filling out the time between visits from disaster or Aunt Ginger, as for instance when she names all the tapes she`s listening to on her trip, or, worse, inserts a two-page list of all the things she`s taking (including "90 dog biscuits," "12 packs of rye crisp," and "2 cotton sundresses"). There may be a rationale for Mercy to explain at length her
dog`s history of diabetes, but I couldn`t guess it. Woodward does a very good job of catching the right historical tone of voice in Ginger`s diaries. But it`s such a long time before those diaries begin to intersect in any way with the other parts that they begin to seem like roadblocks to the story. After one sequence, as if
Woodward recognizes that the journal excerpts lack forward momentum, Mercy reflects on Ginger`s situation in order to pique the reader`s interest: "I don`t know what she`ll do next as a twenty-four-year-old dancer though. Will she stay in Vancouver ... ?" Moreover, when Mercy does get enthusiastic about what she`s reading, she summarizes the diaries, spilling the beans in a rush; though to be fair they are not all spilled, or at least they are examined again later in more detail.
Woodward is at her best in the sequences of psychic vision. Mercy keeps seeing flashes of the immediate aftermath of flooding in some northern community. Along with other "sensors" she sends reports of these fragments of vision to a collector in Whitehorse. Here the present tense that Woodward uses throughout is particularly effective:
The big Balm of Gilead rolls toward her, half its leaves and branches underwater and its huge clump of roots covered with dirt, small rocks and grass. Her breathing hurts, big ragged gasps, her arms flail at what looks like a branch. The tree rolls again.
Doing The Alaska Highway Two-Step is a pleasant way to pass a summer afternoon.
Like Caroline Woodward, Marion Douglas also tells an interwoven tale in her first novel, The Doubtful Guests (Orca, 181 pages, $16.95 paper). These are the paired stories of the twins Gayle and Richard McDonagh. The starting point for both their narratives is Gayle`s departure for Hong Kong, where two things will happen to her: she will have a very tentative, shortlived relationship with another woman, and she will face some of the issues surrounding her father`s longago disappearance. While much of this moves with extreme slowness, there is a good deal that is attractive in Gayle`s story. For one thing, Douglas is capable of very sensuous, figurative prose, which she uses effectively in these sections. She also develops considerable suspense in approaching and then examining Duncan McDonagh`s abandonment of his young family. And Gayle`s relationship with Miranda -a large part of which takes place in Gayle`s imagination -is subtle and beautifully drawn.
It`s harder to say exactly what happens in Richard`s story. He is an extremely eccentric, isolated character, whose idea of a good time is to hurry home to see how much water his flatbread has absorbed while he was out. Richard lives a life of monumental tedium and banality. Certainly Douglas is making some very serious points about the nature and meaning
of life in the late 20th century; unfortunately it`s very hard to write about tedium without being tedious, and she doesn`t quite manage it. Because so little is going on in Richard`s outer life, the reader gets an extensive view of his inner life, which is somewhat richer, because Richard`s a weird guy. Douglas uses the same polysyllabic prose for her characters` thought as she does for their very articulate speech. Thus while the inner life is interesting, there`s an awkwardness in conveying it in such polished sentences as these:
It`s not as if we were like the Bishops, he thought, our pale and isolated and probably consanguineous neighbours. Surely my life will not turn out like Angie Bishop`s, he thought, genetically unfortunate from the start and concluding with mysterious hospitalizations for undiagnosable nervous problems.
And some of Richard`s obsessive behaviour seems forced, more literary than likely. The result is a very ambitious, serious novel, worthwhile despite its lapses.
Nancy Baker`s The Night Inside (Viking, 303 pages, $16.99 paper) certainly doesn`t suffer from a dearth of incident. A lot happens in these pages: kidnapping, murder, falling in love, family reunions, and a lot of bloodletting. Actually, there`s a lot of bloodsucking: The Night Inside is a vampire story. The book gets off to a splendid start:
It took him two days to wake.
His heart, which had beat only once every day, gradually began to expand and contract more rapidly. The blood that had crawled along the interior miles of his body as sluggishly as a glacier now began to melt and flow. Nerves sparked into life and set muscles twitching in reaction as contact was reestablished with the long-forgotten territories of hands and feet.
Vampire stories, as writers as various as Bram Stoker and Anne Rice have demonstrated, offer wonderful possibilities for metaphors about the human condition. Consider alienation. There are a lot of revolting acts in this book, most of them not committed by vampires. In a world like this, it seems right to be alienated. In an age that values personal fulfilment, of course, part of what being a vampire is all about is becoming your true self. The sister of a newly made vampire thinks that what her sibling needs is to be liberated from selfcontrol and stodginess. It would be too easy to say that the undead just wanna have fun, but they certainly do get to act out in ways forbidden to us mortals. Baker also raises issues about sex, communion, love, values, and transcendence.
It`s also interesting to see which of the vampire conventions Baker chooses to hold onto, and which to discard. Will garlic work against these guys? Crosses? Will they see themselves in the mirror?
There are scenes of truly horrific violence, and of great tenderness. Baker obviously enjoys the notion of vampires stalking the streets of Toronto (though no doubt some readers not well disposed toward the Little Apple will think the streets of that city are already overpopulated with bloodsuckers). And, while there aren`t a lot of belly laughs, there are some very wry lines:
"Has this `condition` of yours got a name?"
"Back in the old days, they called those who suffered from it vampires," Rozokov replied, taking out the fedora and settling it over his pale hair. "You may start the van now."
"And what do they call them now?" Mickey asked, as he began backing out from under the overpass.
"The same thing, I would imagine."
Not surprisingly, perhaps, The Night Inside suffers from some of the flaws of its Gothic antecedents. Far too often, for instance, the plot fairly creaks with unlikeliness. And there is an almost mechanical working out of the story, so that what begins as a rich and wry fantasy descends, as it proceeds, into the everyday world of the thriller. But there`s enough mist - and mystique - to keep the pages turning.