All Worldly Pursuits. by Hillel Wright, (New Orphic Publishers, 197 pages, $20.00, ISBN: 0968731767) is an autobiographical novel tempered by imagination. With luminous and articulate writing Wright tells the story of Wiley Moon, a world traveler with the wanderlust of his immigrant Jewish ancestors who escaped to America to avoid persecution. In the psychedelic Sixties Wiley meets and marries Crystal; they have four children and experiment with a back-to-the-earth lifestyle. The marriage fails and Wiley, after a sojourn in Hawaii settles in Canada and the life of a west coast fisherman. He has a long term relationship with the divorced wife of Holgar Larsen, a slightly mad fellow fisherman. Then, in his fifties, after he has given up the rugged life of the sea, Wiley meets a Japanese student, Mayumi, on the streets of Vancouver, and though there is a huge age difference they eventually marry and settle in Japan. The title comes from a highly pessimistic Tibetan quotation, but Wiley Moon is anything but pessimistic. He has a lust for life, and a passion that involves the reader in his story. There are excellent, believable sex scenes, and though the turbulent quest of Wiley Moon for love and happiness will never end, we know he will never cease living life to its fullest.
Will Ferguson (Why I Hate Canadians) in his debut novel Generica (Penguin, 309 pages, $24.00, ISBN: 014029984X), skewers the publishing industry as it has seldom been skewered before. Edwin de Valu, an editor at Panderic Press discovers the ultimate self-help book in the slush pile. He throws it into the waste basket. But rescues it when forced to come up with a project for his pointy-haired boss. What I Learned on the Mountain by Tupak Soiree, though long and convoluted takes the world by storm and the globe is inundated with a plague of happiness, sort of an Apocalypse Nice. The book, which on one level is a retelling of the Wizard of Oz story, is a hilarious put-down of everything in Western society. Edwin, appalled at what he has unleashed sets out to discover the secret behind the disastrous formula for human happiness. Books like this usually fade away in the second half, but several times, just when he appears to have written himself into a corner, Ferguson scampers up the wall like a spider and across the ceiling to attack from a new position. One of the funniest books of this or any year.
Canterbury Beach by Anne Simpson, (309 pages, ISBN: 0670894842) is a Seinfeld type of novel, one that isn't about much and in which not much happens, but it is still readable and held my interest because I kept expecting something extraordinary to happen. That it never did is not exactly a condemnation. It is a novel of family as they head by car from Nova Scotia for their summer cabin in Maine. Allistair and Verna, the parents, have spent forty years of mundane life together. The most exciting thing that ever happened to Verna was that she once had sexual fantasies about her next door neighbor, but didn't do anything about them. Spike, the oldest son is successful financially, but still seeking love. Neil, the second son, is always off stage, but he sends his lonely wife, Robin, on the pilgrimage. Evelyn, the only daughter, is divorced and living with a nice man she doesn't like very much. And the third son, Garnet, left home at eighteen after a rather minor confrontation when he came home drunk and used the F-word in front of his mother. The suspense, if there is any, is that Garnet may show up at the lake cottage. There are passages from everyone's point of view, but many of the scenes are just remembrances of ordinary events from the lives of people from an average, upper middle class family. Simpson is particularly annoying when she has someone reveal something important, then cuts back to the time the event actually took place. For instance, Garnet reveals that years earlier Neil had slept with Garnet's then wife. We go back to that scene, but since we already know the outcome, the drama is completely undercut. We get to know several of the characters fairly well, but their lives are not exciting enough for us to really care.
Flying in Silence, by Gerry Turcotte, (Cormorant Books, 309 pages, $19.95, ISBN: 1896951279) Coming-of-age novels are a dime a dozen and by now both authors and publishers should know that this format requires something extraordinary: a strong, unique voice, vivid characterizations, a fast pace, emotional happenings, fresh humor. Unhappily, this novel has none of those attributes. Here we have an adult looking back on his childhood in Montreal where his father runs a failing hardware store and his mother is mentally ill. The father is French and speaks little English, the mother is English and speaks little French, which sets up an interesting problem but disappointingly turns out not to be a major source of tension. The boy has all the usual childhood traumas and learning experiences: he is bullied, pulls pranks, does dangerous things, discovers some of the mysteries of sex. When his mother goes to hospital he is physically abused by the people who briefly take him in. The first and longest section ends with him as a young adult, leaving home to go to Australia. The second section wanders off into the problems of living on another continent while his parents are aging and dying in Canada. The tone is morose with just a tinge of whininess and the events read more like real life autobiography than fiction, which makes for uninteresting reading.
I don't read many mystery novels. But I know what to expect when I do read one: lots of action, three-dimensional characters, and a plot that keeps me guessing until the last moment as to who done it. Men Lie, by David Maxwell, (Insomniac Press, 255pages, $19.95, ISBN: 189583788X), doesn't meet my expectations. Set in Vancouver, the protagonist is lawyer Douglas Branson, who is in the process of leaving his wife Diane, because he is bored with his marriage. He has a guilty fling in Toronto accompanied by one of his law partners, playboy Mark Henderson, who introduces him to an array of women and a few gangsterish friends. Incidentally, it would be nice if the characters had the same names on the dustjacket as in the body of the story. The night they get back to Vancouver, Henderson is shot and the teenaged daughter of the firm's biggest client is found nearby unconscious with gun in hand. The evidence against the girl appears rigged from the start, and the police are not competent enough to do a paraffin test to see whether she has fired a gun. Branson takes on the defense of the girl, and lawyer procedure takes up much of the rest of the novel including a long, heavily padded chapter on whether the girl will be tried as a juvenile or adult. We are certain the girl is innocent so there is no suspense. Clues the size of bulldozers make sure we know the identity of the mysterious woman who witnessed the murder. And after having met the Toronto gangsters there's little doubt about who done it. An all round disappointment.
The debut novel of Michael Redhill, a successful playwright and poet, Martin Sloane, (Doubleday Canada, 280pages, $29.95, ISBN: 0385259220), is a beautifully written and deeply moving tale of a remarkable artist, his mysterious life, and the powerful effect he had on those he came in contact with. A New York university student, Jolene Iolas, encounters Sloane's work, with it's powerful dreamlike images and initiates a correspondence with him. Though he is more than twice her age they become lovers and he visits her frequently over the next six years until one day, after she talks of a more permanent relationship, Sloane vanishes without a word. Neither he nor any new art ever surfaces. Jolene is devastated, eventually moving to Toronto, Martin's last known residence. Ten years pass. Then Jolene hears from Molly, the best friend of her college days, that someone has been exhibiting art works similar to Martin's in Dublin galleries. Jolene travels to Dublin, Martin's birthplace, where she undergoes a troubling reunion with Molly, and together they try to unravel the enigma that was Martin Sloane, conflicted child of a Jewish mother, and the Irish Catholic father who was lost to him as a child. I loaned this book to a woman whose father vanished when she was a toddler, and the novel moved her to tears. Explored here with tenderness and humor are the mysteries of art and artists, what unconditional love may be, and the long-ranging and deep rooted effects of childhood trauma. Not since The Horse's Mouth has there been such a wonderful portrait of an artist whose passion for his art supersedes all else.ò
W. P. Kinsella recently returned from a 45-game Scrabble Tournament in Reno.