Any one of a dozen characters in Tim Wynveen's latest novel, The Sweeter Life, is intriguing enough to sustain a book of their own. There is Ruby Mitchell the loving farm wife who takes in her niece and two nephews¨Isabel, Hank and Cyrus Owen¨after their parents are killed in a car accident. And there is Ruby's husband Clarence who runs their apple farm Orchard Knoll, and Cyrus's high school sweetheart, Janice, and Ronnie Conger the flamboyant impresario who hires Cyrus to play guitar for his touring band.
The ever-present memories of the youngsters' parents, Riley and Catherine Owen, must compete for space on this crowded stage, even though it is their unfulfilled lives and sudden deaths that catapult this story into being. Wynveen, the author of two previous novels, is already a sentimental favourite. His last novel, Angel Falls, earned him a Commonwealth Writers Prize and even before The Sweeter Life's appearance, it enjoyed considerable buzz. Most of the interest had to do with the novel's anticipated rock 'n roll theme, which is manifest in the rocky musical career of the main character, Cyrus Owen.
Music in The Sweeter Life turns out to be more than the subject and substance of the novel; for Cyrus, still recovering from the loss of his parents, music is what gives meaning to an otherwise senseless world. Indeed, the novel might well have been named "A Death in the Family", since it follows the Owen siblings' efforts to resurrect their lives after a crippling loss.
The story opens in 1970, in the town of Wilbury, Ontario, ten years after Catherine and Riley's death. In his late teens, Cyrus is still living with his uncle and aunt, preparing to graduate from high school. Isabel, an ambitious real estate agent, is several years into a problem-filled marriage, while Hank languishes in an American prison, convicted of murder.
Shortly before graduation, Cyrus meets Ronnie Conger, manager of the Jimmy Waters Revival Show. He runs away with the band, a decision which devastates the remaining members of his family. Over the next several years the group builds a zealous following. But on the brink of an important European tour, Cyrus quits the band, opting to remain in North America with Eura, his long time love.
Cyrus's manager is an extraordinary, unusually-constructed character. Only occasionally does one come upon men like Ronnie¨flamboyant, grandiose men with broad gestures and broader vocabularies; men with an almost supernatural ability to make profitable their magnificent, by all appearances unworkable schemes. Such figures are hard enough to take seriously in real life; Wynveen wins our admiration for making Ronnie live on the page. Still, the character takes up too much space; we know too much about him. Ronnie's past is more clearly delineated than either Isabel's or Hank's.
Ronnie is just one of a number of characters whose unnecessary weight distracts from the story of the Owen family. Cyrus's lover, Eura, contributes nothing at all to the development of the plot or even to the development of Cyrus. In addition, Wynveen over-rates the value of Jimmy Waters, the spirituallyűcharged musician at the center of the band; Jimmy's life is a riff on the theme of resurrection, but he does little to complement Cyrus's story. It is irritating to be repeatedly side-tracked into the lives of these individuals when what we really want to know is how Isabel and Hank and Ruby are bearing up.
Ruby Mitchell, Cyrus's aunt, is the novel's most surely drawn character; an actual southern Ontario type that for some reason rarely appears in Canadian literature. Ruby is a wonderfully generous woman who relies on a deep, private faith to sustain her through difficult times. Her quiet relief when Cyrus returns home from the road nearly moved this reader to tears.
Hank and Isabel, on the other hand, prove much more elusive. Early in the novel, Isabel leaves her ill-suited husband and becomes a successful negotiator of real estate deals. We are told that she is a snob, a brittle social climber, all of which too easily fits our notions of obnoxious wheelerdealers. And yet, the Isabel we actually meet doesn't comply with the image. She is the one who renovates her home to accommodate Hank after he returns from prison as a paraplegic. And she is the one who volunteers at the nursing home; the one who plans a special party for Hank's 40th birthday and takes care of Ruby when their uncle falls gravely ill.
Wynveen's portrayal of Hank is more straightforward. We observe how his father's harsh discipline erodes Hank's self-esteem, and how the boy's search for acceptance leads him into scrapes with the law. What we don't quite grasp is what holds Cyrus and Hank and Isabel together. Of course, we understand, intellectually, the bond that comes from sharing the same parents, the same home, the same life, and the same loss. Yet this connection is not something Wynveen makes palpable. Partly, it's because Wynveen never illuminates how the three kids intersected with one another while their parents were still alive. Instead we are told and told about their devastating loss, but we are never witnesses to what was lost to begin with; and without this opportunity, we are hard pressed to summon up genuine empathy.
But only about half of the novel, perhaps less, is devoted to the Owen family. A great deal of the book relates the vicissitudes of Cyrus's musical career. When he leaves to play guitar with the Jimmy Waters Revival Show, he is an unpracticed amateur. In time he develops a deeper understanding of his instrument. The lessons he learns invariably have broader, life-related significance.
Cyrus is always experimenting with his guitar, trying to improve his sound. But he discovers that music is as much a matter of pace as it is of notes.
Pete suggested they slow the tempo. He played a few bars to demonstrate, not only slower, but longer on each chord, changing not every bar but every two bars, with a soft, pulsing rhythm. Immediately the progression sounded dreamier, the suspensions more pronounced and yet more delicate. (p233)
This passage describes what ultimately happens with Wynveen's novel. About three quarters of the way through the author relaxes his dizzying, shifting perspectives. He begins to focus on fewer notes, sounding out the story of Isabel and Cyrus and Hank. In the final pages a gorgeous melody does emerge. But it is almost too late. ˛