Toronto native Anne Denoon's satirical first novel leads us fearlessly into the treacherous thickets of the Toronto art world as they existed in 1967. The Sixties, though much written about, are not an easy period to get right in fiction or film. They often come across as merely druggy and self-indulgent, or worst of all, too shallow to take seriously. Back Flip has its share of all that, but what Denoon brings to the mix is what was missing at the time: wisdom.
Much of the pleasure in reading Denoon's narrative, besides following its snakes-and-ladders plot twists, lies in the recognition of the all-too-believable life lessons encountered by her deftly drawn cast of characters. For example, twenty-two-year-old Jane Haigh works in the Gonzaga gallery¨where much of the art action takes place¨and wishes with all her young might to live the glamorous life she associates with the world of artists. Instead she returns most nights to her sad apartment and worries about what she can afford in the way of clothing. What Denoon shows us here is not the innocence of youth in the Sixties, but its shrewd, calculating side. The sex Jane endures with her rare dates forms one of the book's funniest, truest commentaries on the period. 'Liberated' sex was comically awful, and Denoon does not hesitate to say so. The fact that the men Jane meets are both lousy in bed and ruthless in their ambitions sums up Denoon's take-no-prisoners approach to both the period and the art world.
Ironically, Win Overton, the oldest woman in the book, is by far the most romantic, though not gushily so. Perhaps Win has just had more time to think. A 'Rosedale painter', she is easily the most emotionally mature of Denoon's women, a consolation in a landscape generally bereft of maturity. Aware that she is caught between the solidity of her Family Compact credentials and the tenuousness of her budding artistic talent, Win soldiers on. Comfortable in her marriage, and comfortably bored, she contemplates an affair¨she had one in her tumultuous thirties¨puts a toe in adulterous waters, then withdraws. In contrast, valium-popping Eleanor, wife of art collector Jerry Zeffler, sails out on the seas of adultery with hilarious results. Art and sex, especially in the Sixties, are a natural fit, even in Toronto, where the Pill was dispensed sternly to single women with "Mrs." written on the prescription. Denoon shows the acute anxiety that all the press about 'free love' produced among ordinary humans. Everybody wanted to be where the action was¨the problem was finding its exact location.
In the Sixties art world the adults held the power, yet Denoon reveals their true bewilderment, as they encounter the period's 'times they are a-changin' ruthlessness. For instance, there is established artist Tom Dale, who spends his happiest hours closeted in his studio painting abstracts that sell briskly. Work time for Tom is interspersed with numerous scotch-lubricated breaks, as he floats on beloved old jazz tunes. In a classic babe-grabs-famous-artist scenario, Eleanor fixes her charms on Tom Dale just as he starts to decline into early senility. Denoon¨who has worked in many art galleries¨invests what one can only guess is her insider's knowledge in the wonderfully pathetic, near-lunatic figure of Bruno Gonzaga, the immigrant gallery owner who sees conspiracies everywhere. Bruno and his flashy new artist, Eddie O'Hara¨the painter of a luminous work he names Back Flip¨possess the true passion for art that outsiders would expect to be common in the art world. That all three serious artistic characters, Tom, Bruno and Eddie, are in various ways mentally unstable is a telling commentary on the world Denoon knows so well. Indeed, her description of the long night of Eddie's 'bog acid' trip at an art world party deserves its very own writing award.
At the periphery of this craziness is a character who initially seems depressingly familiar. Former bright young artistic light Bob Willard is a 40-year-old failure, a type who forms the backbone of so much CanLit fiction. But even here, Denoon takes the stereotype and, well, flips it. A vital background player in the central drama of the book¨which features the coveted painting Back Flip flying like a boomerang around Toronto after a London curator deigns to include it in a major show¨Bob emerges as a good guy, both a loyal friend and a man who surprisingly reinvigorates his talent at the eleventh hour.
Denoon also provides major pleasure for her readers as she moves her characters like chess pieces around the well-trod Toronto map. Bob, Tom, Eleanor, Win, Eddie et al are constantly bumping into each other in the Yorkville neighbourhood¨yes, it really was a neighbourhood then¨at The Pilot Tavern, The Embassy, The Park Plaza, The Windsor Arms. Eddie O'Hara frequents downmarket Spadina Ave and D'Arcy St, pulling a few of the older group into his orbit. Denoon reminds us that there was once a thriving artists' colony on Gerrard West, before Queen West was even on the horizon. Denoon's portrait of the tight, incestuous world that formed the Toronto art scene in '67, thoughtfully skewers it, while magically bringing it to life. ˛