Kevin Chong, another of that talented young group of UBC writing graduates, gives us Baroque-a-nova (Penguin Books, 232pages, $24.00, ISBN: 0141000252). Saul St. Pierre is your typical confused 18-year-old, but manages well considering he lives with his ex-stepmother, and is the son of a famous folksinging duo from the 70s. The novel covers eight days in Saul's life, from the time he learns that his long vanished mother has committed suicide in Thailand, to the day of her funeral. The St. Pierre's biggest hit song has been revived by a German hip-hop group, so Saul and his father Ian, are spotlighted as the media smells carrion. Two young groupies land on his father's doorstep; Saul is about to be expelled from high school for protesting the banning of a book he hasn't read. By turns hilarious and deeply saddening, Saul learns a great deal about his parent's past and his own present. There are excesses of all kinds, hired protesters, sly literary agents, rapacious VJs, as Saul spends a chaotic week in a fishbowl. There is a particularly touching scene where Saul, desperate for some connection to the mother he doesn't remember, goes to sleep wrapped in a banner commemorating her death. Ultimately about love and forgiveness, Chong tells a powerful and moving tale, though I suggest skipping the final five pages which becomes an epilogue that tells a whole lot that should be left to the reader's imagination.
The protagonist of Titanium Punch, by Yashin Blake (ECW Press, 171 pages, $19.95, ISBN: 1550224522), is Isaac "Iqbal" Khan a young man heavily involved in the Toronto alternative music scene. The title is the name of a band, and the possibilities of a novel supplying insights into the alternative music scene are promising. Unhappily, after 50 pages there materializes no plot, no action, no story, no significant sex, and though there are many characters there is no character development. As a famous TV host might say, Goodbye.
Louder Than the Sea, by Wayne Bartlett (Cormorant Books, 338 pages, $22.95, ISBN: 1896951287), is a novel of Newfoundland in the 1960s, before the sealant went the way of buggy whips and the Edsel. This is truly a first novel, with a lot of good material never quite coming together, and several interesting characters who are not properly developed. The novel is almost half over before the real story begins. The first chapters give a detailed account of the Newfoundland sealant from the point of view of the sealers. While it might make for an interesting nonfiction piece it only fills a lot of space here. A teenager named Martin and his family have been moved from the tiny village of his birth on an off-coast island to the mainland as part of a Newfoundland Government relocation program. Martin has difficulty adjusting and decides to make a foolish return to the island during the March sealant, and is stranded there when the ice breaks up. Family and friends risk their lives searching for him. During the search Martin's father is also stranded on the island and dies of a heart attack just before a rescue party arrives. Instead of treating Martin like the stupid, insufferable, self-centered teenager he is, the family welcome him back without reprimand, and there is hardly a tear for his decent old father who died needlessly. Bartlett shows some talent with dialogue but this material was not ready for publication.
The Boy Must Die, by Jon Redfern (ECW Press, 299 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 1550224530), turns out to be a pretty good mystery, police procedural. Billy Yamamota is a retired Vancouver homicide detective who has moved back to his childhood home near Lethbridge, Alberta, and is called in by the Lethbridge Police to help solve what appears to be a murder, though there are some doubts. A few months earlier a disturbed youth committed suicide in the basement of a house rented by his former social worker. Now a second grungy youth, a friend of the first, is found dead in the same basement, but it appears he was tortured and murdered. Yamamota is a very interesting protagonist, cool, intelligent, in control. His motto: "Touch Nothing. Observe all. Make no assumptions." For much of the book a subplot concerning another irresponsible youth in his late teens who is in debt to a loan shark, and the theft of some indian artifacts, appears to be so much filler, until all the parts of the puzzle come together in a most satisfactory manner. There is perhaps too much frenzied running about by the police, and some of the red herrings are a little over ripe, but this is for the most part an intelligent page turner, and I believe Detective Yamamota will likely return to solve additional crimes.
Every Wickedness, by Cathy Vasas-Brown, Doubleday Canada ( 293 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 0385259778), could be a real bloodcurdler except that the clichT content is exceptionally high, so high that it could easily be an episode of Law and Order: Special Victim's Unit. A serial killer is loose in San Francisco; he abducts beautiful women, holds them captive for a few days, then dumps their bloodless bodies in prominent places about the city, after carving a spider emblem into each victim's wrist. The cookie-cutter detective heading the investigation is Jim Kearns who is a divorced, reformed drinker living alone. Have we seen this somewhere before? Beth Wells is the roommate of one of the victims and when she begins receiving threatening notes in the mail she maintains contact with Detective Kearns. What Vasas-Brown does very well is create diversions. It appears for much of the book that a new boyfriend of Beth's is the killer. There are a few interludes spent with the anonymous killer to heighten the suspense. Then Beth is grabbed by the maniac and it becomes a race against time to find her. Doesn't this sound familiar? What is disappointing is that Kearns and his task force don't really solve the case. A third party recognizes a photo of the killer when he was a mere child. This man and the would-be victim take care of business before the police arrive. The newspaper headline could be: Plucky Girl Outwits Serial Killer Where Many Others Failed. A reasonable first effort, but too obvious and heavy-handed.
Is it possible to have a very well written novel that is really terrible in every other aspect? The answer is yes, and The African Safari Papers, by Robert Sedlack (Doubleday Canada, 309 pp, $32.95, ISBN: 0-385-25991-3), is it. The book might be titled 'The Ugly Canadians', for it deals with a Canadian family¨mother, father, son, traveling from Paris, where the father is working temporarily, to Africa for a safari. The mother has a history of mental illness and it is obvious from day one that the trip should be aborted. But it is not. The father is an overbearing drunk. The most unpleasant character is the son, Richard, who tells the story. He is an immature 19-year-old, arrogant, dishonest, self-centered, and drug-addled. There is an old saw, that most authors would do well to consider, something to the effect that a novel is about a likable character struggling against great odds toward a worthwhile goal. Sedlack is a technically competent writer but his choice of material leaves everything to be desired. There are no likable characters in this story. Even Gabriel, their African safari guide, has a history of mental illness, which makes their situation even worse. All three behave abominably every day of the trip. The gist of the novel is summed up by this quote: "Mom and dad and I are crazy. . . The trip is for the loons, the addicts, the drunks, the desperate." Page after page is wasted with long passages of dialogue between the drunken father and the incoherent mother. When a "dark family secret" is finally revealed it is so banal as to hardly be worth mentioning. There is a delicious climax where two of these three losers get eaten by lions. Would that the lions had eaten all three along with their guide and the manuscript.
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, by Robert Hough (Random House Canada, 428 pages, $34.95, ISBN: 0679310916), is an ambitious project, fictionalizing the life of real life circus performer Mabel Stark who began her career about 1900, first as a dancer, then as a cage cleaner, then as a trainer of tigers and lions. She became one of the most famous tiger trainers in the world, her career peaking when she performed with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. In a classic act of deviousness, John Ringling canceled her act and effectively ended her career, even though she was still a major drawing card. Mabel began her life in Kentucky and briefly trained as a nurse, married, had a nervous breakdown and was confined to a mental hospital. With the help of a progressive doctor she escaped and joined the circus. She went through a succession of husbands, the Greek tailor, a voyeur, a drunken animal trainer, a dishonest accountant with Ringling Brothers, and finally a very strange and unique animal trainer named Art, who was the love of her life. She blamed herself for Art's death at the paws of her favorite tiger. Her relationship with her tigers, particularly Rajah, was often more than overtly sexual. While the story for the most part is interesting, the pace flags on occasion, especially toward the end where there is an epidemic among the circus workers caused by bad water. It is said that Robert Hough has made his name writing narrative-driven nonfiction about characters "who live beyond our culture's conception of normality." In that sense the novel delivers what it promises.
Many novels are too long, while The Torn Skirt, by Rebecca Godfrey (HarperFlamingoCanada, 202 pages, $30.00, ISBN: 0002255197), is far too short both in length and time span. Not that what is presented is not well written, well crafted and well told. Godfrey grew up in Victoria, the daughter of well known writers David and Ellen Godfrey.
Sixteen-year-old Sara, the daughter of a kindly hippie father and a mother who deserted the family, feels claustrophobic on Vancouver Island and in beautiful Victoria, with its perfect gardens and tourist culture. After her high school friends perform a horrifying act on a girl she hardly knows, Sara's world goes into a spin. She visits the seedy downtown area and quickly becomes involved with several delinquent girls and helps one of them commit a crime. After that the pace can be likened to a movie on fast forward. Sara is picked up as a juvenile, becomes involved in the social system, with drugs, and in a far more serious crime. All this happens in a matter of days. It would have been so much more interesting if her downfall had been more gradual and if both Sara and the other characters, especially Justine of the torn skirt, had been more fully developed.
The portrayal of self-centered teenage angst and the setting of Victoria are both uncannily accurate. (I lived in Victoria for 11 years and survived the teenage years of three daughters, one of whom attended Mt. Douglas High School, known as Mt. Drug. The only place she doesn't mention is the Kick-Apart-A-Narc Park next to City Hall.) The only time the voice fails is when Sara receives a letter from her boyfriend. Sara's moods change from moment to moment, alternating naive vulnerability with defiant criminality. This is a very good novel, though it could have been so much better were it not so rushed. Both the jacket design by Patrick Li and cover photo by Martien Muller are truly excellent work.
Cape Breton Road, by D. R. MacDonald (Doubleday Canada, 288 pages, $32.95, ISBN: 0385259018), opens with a beautifully poetic chapter reminiscent of Ernest Buckler at his finest. The language of the rest of the novel is powerful on occasion but never matches that first chapter. The story is one of the eternal triangle. Twenty-year-old Innis, born in Cape Breton but raised in Boston, gets in trouble there for stealing cars and is deported back to Canada. He moves in with his Uncle Starr, a TV repairman in a dismal and backward Cape Breton community. Starr is a bachelor and shortly after Innis arrives Starr rescues a woman named Claire, a thirtyish former flight attendant, who is being mistreated by her husband.
Claire moves in with Starr but Innis is wildly attracted to her. Claire is from Toronto. She moved to Nova Scotia to start a horse farm with her husband, a business that failed. What she sees in the rough, hard-drinking Starr other than a safe haven is not clear. What she sees in the scruffy pot head Innis is impossible to fathom.
Innis has delusions of becoming a successful pot grower, and does odd jobs while his isolated grow-op matures. Starr is jealous of Innis's fascination with Claire, and they clash repeatedly.
There are no likable characters: Starr is an unsuccessful old drunk, while Innis is an ignorant, self-centered pot head, and Claire is not well enough developed to determine what she is other than an instrument of conflict.
Baseball is briefly discussed and the author is apparently unaware that the Toronto Blue Jays play in the American League where pitchers do not bat. The story bogs down near the end when Innis, not unexpectedly, goes back to his thieving ways, steals a vehicle and tries to flee Cape Breton.
Mad Dog by Kelly Watt (Doubleday Canada, 197 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 0385257619), details a summer in the life of another troubled teenager. Fourteen-year-old Sheryl-Anne MacRae lives in a pastoral setting in Southern Ontario apple country with her Uncle Fergus, who is her adopted father, her mother having abandoned her when she was very young. It is 1964, the hippie movement is gaining momentum and, as they say, times they are a changing.
Fergus, who has recently acquired a degree in pharmacy, works at the local drug store and looks after the family apple orchard which he has inherited. He picks up a hitchhiker, a seventeen-year-old would-be folk singer named Peter Angelo who resembles the late James Dean. Cheryl-Anne falls in love and part of the story is about her sexual awakening. However, this is a much darker situation than it first appears. Fergus, his wife, his brother and neighbors are heavy drinkers, and have recently discovered marijuana. Cheryl-Anne is plagued with horrifying nightmares like something out of Rosemary's Baby. As the summer progresses, the pliable Peter is drawn into the alcoholic, drug-ridden world of Fergus and his friends.
I believe it was Ibsen who said something to the effect that if you put a gun in a drawer in Act One, you use it in Act Four. The gun, in the form of a crippled mad dog lives in the family yard. He supplies a strong sense of menace throughout, but ultimately does not figure in the climax, except perhaps as a rather heavy-handed symbol. All of Cheryl-Anne's worst fears come true; she learns that her nightmares are based on fact, and that there may be any number of deaths involved, including possibly her own mother's. She flees for her life from the ironically named Eden valley. While she's no Steven King, Watt gives us a fairly credible horror/suspense yarn in this very short novel.
Sister Crazy by Emma Richler (Knopf Canada, 215 pages, $29.95, ISBN: 067697385X), is a fine debut piece of fiction. Whether it is a novel or a collection of related stories is open to question. I'm going to postpone that decision for the moment. Sister Crazy has already been reviewed positively and at length in this magazine. The book consists of seven monologues by Jemima Weiss the middle child in an eccentric, quirky but lovable family, a family that we assume in many respects resembles the Richler clan, Emma being the daughter of the famous Mordechai. As with this year's most brilliant novel, Martin Sloane, by Michael Redhill, this story deals with the effects that childhood has on the rest of one's life. Richler, like Redhill, has a theater background: she trained first as an actor at New York's Circle in the Square, then worked for some twenty years in theater, TV and radio, primarily in Great Britain. She has put her theatre experience to good use in this engaging tale. Jem's story is told in crackling prose (she understands the importance of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell to successful fiction), hilarious one moment, heartbreaking the next. Like every good heroine Jem has a dark secret. Speaking of her brother Jude, she says, "I don't tell him that I have been playing with knives, that I have been making observations about their capacity to draw blood and etch fine lines on sensitive areas of the body without actually causing death." Richler is a bright intelligent new voice on the literary scene. ˛
W. P. Kinsella recently returned from a 45-game Scrabble Tournament in Reno.