What is said of poets, is also true of many novelists: they give to airy nothings a local habitation and a name. Gerald Lynch's latest novel, Exotic Dancers, is set in Troutstream, the mythical Ottawa suburb that provided both the local habitation and the name for Lynch's 1996 novel, Troutstream. As the euphemism that supplies the title for this book would suggest, there's nothing very exotic about Troutstream. On the contrary, its characters reside in the uneasy gap between the mundane and the wondrous¨a world of expensive car repairs (at the dealership, alas, in order to preserve the resale value) and ambitious life dreams (to be a woman goalie in the NHL), pool halls owned by biker gangs and glimpses of personal redemption that, not surprisingly, turn out to have a lot to do with love. The miraculous brushes up against the quotidian in hockey arenas and bingo parlours. The insistent complexity with which these tensions are rendered makes Exotic Dancers a compelling read.
The novel progresses as a series of monologues, principally by four characters, Maggie Coyle and her son Jonathan, and Joe Farlotte and his daughter Holly, with occasional interventions by other characters and by a fairly unobtrusive narrator. Maggie is a divorced and depressed single mother, downsized by the TD Bank where her career seemed to be flourishing, and harassed by an unforgiving father, a monument of raw unpleasant masculinity glorified by selfishness and anger who is hellbent on convincing his daughter that her personal inadequacies are to blame for letting her man slip away. Joe Farlotte is an out-of-work and alcoholic architect whose hard-shelled lawyer ex-wife is on to a new job and a new man in Montreal. Joe's daughter, Holly, lives for hockey and prays to her hero, JosTe Maisonneuve, the first woman goalie to play in the NHL¨a publicity stunt during an Ottawa Senators exhibition game, Joe explains. Holly repeats JosTe's advice like a mantra, "Focus. Concentrate. Visualize," but discovers that that is not always enough. Jonathan is "full of hate", poisoned by his parents' divorce and brimming with teenage disgust for everyone and all things other than his best friend and worst influence, Phil the Pill. The novel tracks Joe and Maggie's stuttering progress towards love in the awkward wake of an afternoon of bad sex after meeting in the Home Hardware looking for transparent hockey tape for their kids. Will they get together properly? They're as curious and bemused as everyone else. "Tune in tomorrow, As the Stomach Turns," as Maggie wryly puts it (p54).
Gerald Lynch has a leveling muse, as William Hazlitt said of the poet Wordsworth. There is an ironic eloquence, a droll gracefulness with which characters reach for the linguistic bottom rung. People say "duh" a lot, and "hello". They play the idiot with endless cleverness, get some of their best expressions from Oprah, conduct a steady stream of one-sided and inevitably victorious debates with the likes of "Herr Doktor Freud" and Stephen Hawking, and flaunt their Ozark hillbilly, rich southern belle, and Mohammed Ali routines. The ultimate affliction in this world is being a loser¨a terminal condition that most of characters attribute to themselves almost as often as they do to the people around them. Lynch depicts his characters' shortcomings with unflinching realism but also with compassion, and more importantly, with a respect that is rooted in their capacity for self-honesty, and for a bleak sense of humour that makes what they see there tolerable. The humour with which these characters respond to life's dilemmas is one of the memorable features of the novel. "Bury my heart at the blueline," Maggie tells herself as she endures the chill of Joe's post-coital cold shoulder when they next meet, at the town skating rink.
The shifting first-person narratives give the book a kind of muttered-under-the-breath quality, a running account of the things that get left out of conversations but that we'd dearly love to say, or of the conversations we'd love to have but know we had better not. It makes for lively psychological drama; better yet, like flies on the proverbial wall, we get to hear these muttered asides from all angles. As the plot unfolds, these narratives become a string of dramatic monologues, or, considering these characters' capacity for theatrical self-fashioning, melodramatic monologues. The result is no picturesque sunshine sketches of a small suburb, though. The various mini-dramas and whimsical inner journeys that unfold throughout the novel are punctuated by deaths and crises that throw into stark relief the characters' inability to put the pieces of their lives back together. Joe's daughter, Holly, who spends much of the novel in a hospital bed recovering from a nervous breakdown, is a poignant reminder of the psychic pain that informs these various struggles.
The novel's overarching theme and, in different ways, every character's enduring preoccupation, is the thorny issue of relations between the sexes. Every character is an armchair psychologist fortified with a ready stack of pet theories and threadbare rationalizations of the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" vintage. In the first sentence of the first section, Maggie wonders why Jonathan won't wear the nerdy blue parka trimmed in white that she has bought him¨"just another boy thing I know nothing about" (p9). Maggie's father and Joe take turns wrestling with the question of how to be a man in a world where the feminists have ruined everything. Maggie struggles to cope with various men's immaturity and selfishness without resorting to the unappealing lot of radical-feminist Sonia, a militant gender warrior of the don't-dye-your-hair-it's-a-pernicious-male-conspiracy variety who is given to brandishing bad French feminism. Her advice to Maggie is inevitably as helpful as a pebble in your shoe. At times, Sonia comes off as a stock character that takes the edge off the novel's otherwise unswerving reach for complexity. The pros and cons of feminism (mostly cons) are a favourite topic of most of the characters, but enemy-of-the-patriarchy Sonia doesn't really offer much to complicate the debate. In a novel where so many characters are so quick to loathe "the concerned sorority" and all that they have destroyed, providing a less-easy target than the parodic version of feminism that is on offer here would have facilitated a more nuanced exploration of these dynamics.
Exotic Dancers is a suburban novel in every sense of the word: set in a newish subdivision overseen by the ineffectual denizens of the Troutstream Community Association, but also beneath the radar screen of blissful middle-class prosperity. The main characters live in The Project, a government-subsidized housing complex for the human debris that has fallen¨or been pushed¨off life's fast track. Like the crowds that congregate at Troutstream Bingo six days a week, they are a "line-up, of the time worn and the physically wretched . . . . The ghost of Fellini could well be on his way to a productive casting call" (p37). Worst of all, they are people who "have learned to want too little from life" (p46). But lurking amongst these shattered lives and dysfunctional relationships is also a furtive sense of community that is ultimately as genuine as it is tenuous. Joe's evolving relationship with Jonathan, forged out of a mutual love of snooker, is a touching and believable feature that offsets the characters' more usual clumsiness in the face of life's challenges. In daily Project life, as at bingo, "everyone knows everything about everyone else, all are sympathetic listeners and amateur grief counsellors, everyone's in everything, there's an almost enforced sharing, no one wins alone and all lose together. Go figure" (p44).
Elsewhere, Lynch's eye for detail is unfailing. From the narrator's opening description of the student who always comes to his writing class carrying parts of his bicycle, "seat, handlebars, wheel¨or pilloried by the whole frame," to the hilarious depiction of the sanctimonious Mrs. Mackery, a school teacher with an unfortunate proclivity for flatulence and an unwavering determination to diagnose her students with Attention Deficit Disorder and have them put on Ritalin, there is a compelling attention to personal and social minutiae that animates the interiorized world of psychologized monologues. The result is a cross between Alice Munro's microscopic attention to personal tensions and Roddy Doyle's vision of the energy and humour that is part of life on the wrong side of the trout stream. If characters hit rock bottom, they also bounce back as the plot arcs slowly towards a redemption that is as grudging and fumbling as it is inexorable. Joe, having kicked the bottle, eventually makes good on his determination "to grow up and stop living this life halfway between a bad TV movie and a hurtin country song" (p185). The result is a scaled-down, off-the-rack Troutstream version of maturity that is all the more impressive for having emerged out of so rich a vein of juvenility. Joe's epiphany comes on Highway 17 near the Inglis bypass on the way back from an aborted helicon moment of clarity and fresh thought nonetheless. Somehow, the salvation that follows is all the more memorable because so many people have found it so unnecessarily difficult to achieve it all along.
In a conjured-up world where people specialize in screwing things up, there is a poignancy that accompanies the discomfort of reaching a conclusion where people start doing the right thing, a response that is intensified by the fact that the characters react the same way. Everyone feels a bit uncomfortable feeling so comfortable. But there is a gentle hint that the tensions haven't wholly dissipated; they have simply been fit into a stable framework where they have some hope of being dealt with. Jonathan in particular responds to the prospect of inner peace by ratcheting up his "teenage surly quotient" (p335), but even he cannot resist the allure of this more affirmative vision. Even Sonia is incorporated into the renewed social order. This account of the complex lives of four people more familiar with "the long hangover of dysfunction and disaster" (p139) than with the simplicities of happiness is memorable, as much for the sense of tentative possibility that it offers, as for the irony and resilience with which these characters forge a sense of home in a down-sized world. ˛
Paul Keen teaches English at Carleton University. His current project is on the connections between literature, commerce, and fashion in eighteenth-century Britain.