||Larger Forces at Work
by Maureen Garvie
It may be constitutionally impossible for a Canadian writer, even in the age of "Joe Millionaire", to write a book that ends happily ever after. So when we read on the dust jacket of Richelle Kosar's new novel that the hapless Masaryk family has won a lottery, we wonder how long it will be before their bubble bursts The Masaryks believe the bad times are finally over. As the news sinks in, Mona Masaryk is overwhelmed by a visceral sense of relief: "You feel like you've been locked up in a cage. You've been in that cage for years. You're always sweating and struggling but you can't escape. Then all of a sudden the door just opens. You can breathe deep. You can sing. You can dance." Yeah, right, as Mona's daughter Cory would say.
A Streak of Luck, Toronto writer Richelle Kosar's second novel, is about a family, originally from Saskatchewan, whose lives have been broken on the wheel of dreams. Year after year they have endured grinding poverty, reduced to sneaking off in the night without paying bills, even sleeping in the car when there was nowhere else to go. For people like them, Toronto is a place that "squeezes you until you disappear." But they have hung on.
Then the big wheel rolls around again and offers them another chance. Although Kosar roots her fiction in a concrete, carefully constructed reality, underlying it is a rich, chthonic layer of belief in life as shaped by larger forces. The Masaryk family mythology is built on a moment of pure cosmic fate: Mona meets Jesse in the fairground in Walbrook, Saskatchewan, a sun-haloed rock guitarist taking a break between shows, an artist on his way up. As their eyes lock, Mona prays, "God, if you never give me anything else in life, I won't complain." She gets Jesse but little by little discovers she has made a hard bargain. She never complains, not even after two decades of waitressing and living at the mercy of slum landlords. She doesn't reproach Jesse for the death of their son or for his subsequent attempt to drop out of their lives.
But her daughters complain. Cory, the younger, expresses the standard adolescent intolerance of adult frailties. Becky, the older daughter, regards Mona and Jesse as losers. Embittered by deprivation, she has lost faith in the family myth. Instead she is drawn magnetically to money, determined to parlay her beauty into a better life. "People without money have to be smart," she tells herself.
Kosar was a playwright before she became a novelist¨her play "The Girls in the Office" won a Vancouver Fringe Festival award for Best New Play. So it's no surprise that Streak of Luck reflects her dramatist's sense of structure and ear for dialogue. Kosar can make even a "yeah" or a "hi" resonate powerfully. She elects to tell the story from the multiple points of view of forty-year-old Mona, twenty-year-old Becky, and fifteen-year-old Cory. From Jesse, aging rock musician and the love of Mona's life, we get lyrics. Take away his music, and Jesse is pretty inarticulate, but his songs distill the essence of his dreams.
Kosar knows these people intimately and treats them with tenderness and respect. Maybe that's because she too came from small-town Saskatchewan; maybe she too looked down Highway 35 and imagined it as a route to the wider world. Her characterizations are never reductionist or simplistic, and each of these people has the capacity to surprise. No matter how hard-headed and unsentimental Becky thinks she is, she, like her mother, has a soft spot for nice young men with burning talent. But she fights her genes and chooses money. We fear for her and hope she safely negotiates that slippery slope. Cory develops a grudging admiration for a lonely boy at school dismissed by the other kids as Kreepy Karko. Karko believes in magic, escape, the X-Files. Those are things Cory understands.
Kosar draws liberally on pop culture in the form of movies, television and music videos. This is a highly visual book, its pictures sticking and accumulating. Jesse catches Mona's eye in a hot gaze in the rearview mirror; Becky strides down a street, her long legs flashing; a small boy runs across a busy street towards his father. Kosar strings these images along a taut line of plot, with that lottery ticket and its seven-figure-payoff at the end.
There are plenty of tip-offs that, like the wish in the fairy tale, the big win has a dark side. And of course things don't quite work out. It's depressingly predictable that the ending (and this isn't giving it away) isn't exactly a pot of gold beneath the rainbow. This is a novel by a Canadian writer, after all, not reality TV. But like Becky's boyfriend with his BMW and American Express card, the lottery offers the Masaryks a vision of themselves as worth something. Miraculously, it gives them back the power of hope. Too bad it doesn't come with a guarantee.
Maureen Garvie is a writer living in Kingston, Ont. She is the author, with Mary Beaty, of the young adult novel George Johnson's War, published by Groundwood.