The Khaki Angel, by Dave Williams (Ethnic Enterprises, 141 pages, ISBN: 0968159680), is a small novel from an unknown press that does everything wrong but still manages to tell an entertaining, suspenseful story because the author instinctively understands the basic tenet of all novel writing: a likable character strives against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal. Set in the 1960s the likable character is Army Corporal Albert Connelly, assigned to a boring desk job at a British Columbia base. He longs for adventure. He buys a beat up Piper PA-18 and restores it to good condition. Right before joining the army, Connelly was dumped by his girlfriend, Dorothy. Dorothy marries a serviceman and moves far away. Her new husband, Robert, gets permission to fly as a passenger on a military plane to visit an ailing relative in the Vancouver area. The plane crashes into a glacier on Mount Robson in Jasper National Park and Robert is the sole survivor.
The crash site is too high for a helicopter rescue and it will take possibly weeks for a crew of mountain climbers to reach the stranded and injured Robert by which time he will certainly have died. Corporal Connelly sees the story on TV, and realizes that Only You Dick Daring can save the stranded husband of his former sweetheart.
His plan is to land on the glacier with his little Piper, load up the injured man, and drive the plane into open space and hope it will start flying before it hits the ice field some 1000 feet below. The plot is hokey, the dialogue like out of a bad soap opera. There is a sappy introduction that should never have been included. Still, the flying sequences are brilliantly written and the suspense is palpable. We cheer for Corporal Connelly and sympathize with his loss and his unselfish bravery.
Falling Backward, by James Eke (Ekstasis Editions, 210 pages, $19.95, ISBN: 1896860982), is, if not the worst novel of 2002, certainly a finalist. On the Sunshine Coast of BC a nameless 20-something guy, with a good job and a beautiful wife has a moment of what he calls insight while rock climbing. The next morning he goes for a run and doesn't come back. He is one of most narcissistic and unlikable characters ever created.
Penniless and with only his jogging clothes he sneaks onto a ferry to Horseshoe Bay where he meets a derelict and by midnight is in Stanley Park sharing a heroin needle with this filthy, disgusting vagrant. At this point I lost all interest in the character. His stupidity probably causes him to be infected with AIDS, hepatitis, and every other STD known to man. He becomes addicted, lives on the streets, is befriended by a brutish lesbian, a female heroin addict, and a pleasant woman who must have rocks in her head to associate with this walking germ factory. He eventually beats his addiction and goes on the road through the mountains to Alberta where he has some unlikely adventures that fulfill some basic male sexual fantasies. He meets a woman named Sarah, another climber, who is so desperate for a relationship she latches onto this loser. He finds an abandoned cabin in the mountains where he spends a pleasant interval, apparently not bothered by the 10-million black flies and mosquitoes that inhabit the area. On a climb with Sarah he has another moment of "insight", this one to do with levitating saints, and as the story ends, is about to strike out alone, leaving Sarah sitting on the top of the mountain. Everyone "smiles" too much; the verb must be used at least 100 times. The protagonist is mean, selfish and self-centered, a lazy user and abuser, and his so called insights are inane in the extreme.
Arms, by Madeline Sonik (Nightwood Editions, 177 pages, ISBN: 088971181X), is a very short, very strange, almost incomprehensible novel, that the author tells us was written as "...a magical text of healing and as my black cord dissertation for the 13th House Mystery School."
Two children are let loose into the world when their home explodes because of the emotional volatility of their parents. Flying shingles amputate the girl's arms and she spends the rest of the story searching for them. This tale seems to be set in the present one moment and various medieval settings at other times. The brother, Joe, has horrendous adventures, becoming a dog, figuratively and perhaps literally. He eventually finds employment and is married to the bosses' daughter who turns out to be a robot. The girl marries a sort of Prince Charming and the marriage does not go well. The time sequence is blurry and the time span could be weeks, months or years. Some of the stories are certainly allegorical in nature, though exactly what they are saying is unclear. There is a delightfully witchy cover photo by Kristin Strickland, and interesting illustrations by Allison Skelton. The aspect of healing escapes me, as both characters are train wrecks and far from recovered by the novel's end. Okay, since I'm at a loss, here is what the publisher thinks the book is about, probably as viable an explanation as any: "...a masterfully crafted magic-realist novel about the disenfranchised and their struggle to find personal relevance and autonomy in a callous and complex society. After escaping the final explosion of their destructive family, a sister and brother experience different levels of loss, manipulation, regimentation and ridicule on their separate paths to self-realization."
Swimming in the Ocean, by Catherine Jenkins (Insomniac Press, 161pages, $19.95, ISBN: 1894663179), is hopelessly boring and another finalist for the worst novel of 2002. A nameless woman on a Caribbean holiday recalls her pitiful life to date, interspersing her memories with little lecture-essays on various forms of marine life. One of the things a fiction writer is saying to readers is, "Hey, listen to me! I want to tell you a story!" This goes back to the days of the caveman. when Ugh would stand up beside the campfire and say, "Listen to me! I want to tell you about the dinosaur I killed this afternoon." If Ugh was a boring storyteller his friends would wander off to their caves leaving him talking to himself. If she lived in prehistoric times Jenkins would be left alone talking to the campfire. Her characters have no names so it is impossible to care for them. They carry no identification. The woman in question mostly tells us about her many and varied unsuccessful love affairs and one night stands. Time and again she meets her sex partners at an underground bar, not realizing that at an underground bar she will meet only creepy-crawly creatures that live underground. She is a whiner who is responsible for her own bad behavior and engenders no sympathy. Not once does she inform the reader about her childhood which must have been particularly traumatic for this nameless bundle of neuroses to live her life in such a pathetic manner.
The Originals, by L. E. Vollick (DC Books, 260 pages, ISBN: 0919688497). I began this book with trepidation after noting that it had five epigraphs. One is often too many and quantity can never replace quality. This is yet another low-life teenage girl novel, a genre that is becoming very irritating, for it indicates that would-be novelists and publishers are not reading contemporary literature or they would know that this same story has been told perhaps 20 times recently with varying degrees of success. Set in the early 1990s in a nameless city, though it must be Toronto for it has a subway and people speak English, Mary Margaret (Magpie) Smith is an unwashed teenage punk with blue hair, a couple of thuggish brothers, a pretentious friend named PK, and a mother who is sleeping with the local catholic priest. There is a world of difference between being poor and being shiftless. Anyone can be poor. There is never a reason to be shiftless. Magpie and PK bum around the streets, filthy on both the inside and outside. They whine about having nothing but always seem to have almost unlimited cash for alcohol, cigarettes, and sometimes drugs. They hang out at an underground club peopled solely by undesirables. Magpie is fascinated by Samantha Smith, the little girl who wrote Russian President Andropov a letter, visited Russia and was later killed in a plane crash. PK provides some sociological/psycho-babble to try to explain why he and Magpie are such losers. Commenting on neighborhood pets, "Those dogs live better than I do. They're treated better, eat better...fucking dogs...I¨I mean we¨count less than them." He is right, of course. But he, Magpie and their friends intentionally bring on their own downfall by making themselves undesirable in every possible way. Drunks and druggies create their own misery and their fates are of no interest to anyone. All this is very disappointing because for a first novel the story is above average, and Vollick is a sprightly writer with a good deal of potential.
W. P. Kinsella recently placed 7th of 98 competitors at the National Scrabble Championships in San Diego.