||A Review of: Drowning Man
by William Robertson
Olivia: What's a drunken man like, fool?
Clown: Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman:
one draught above heat makes him a fool, the
second mads him, and the third drowns him.
William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Olivia is talking about her uncle Toby Belch, a man who tries to
make the action of Twelfth Night revolve around keeping open his
lifeline of sack and spirits. In the old parlance, he's a reveller,
but in our contemporary terms he could easily pass for an alcoholic,
and consequently has a disease of the ego. Olivia's mourning,
Malvolio's rules, Sir Andrew's money-they're all about Toby. Will
these help or hinder his drinking?
That sodden egocentrism may be what's tormenting Wilf Sweeny, the
protagonist in Reginan Dave Margoshes's new novel, Drowning Man.
Certainly Sweeny is an alcoholic. We learn that very early. He's
back in his hometown of Timber, B.C., writing the obituary column,
on probation, at the paper he once owned. He's fallen far and has
been astray across much of the globe and through a couple of
marriages. His new problem starts when he recognizes a dead man's
name and decides to do a little follow-up.
Nicholas Limousine is a name that gnaws at Sweeny through most of
the novel. When the bearer of the name dies of mysterious-or maybe
just natural-causes at a local hotel, Sweeny starts sniffing around.
If a man doesn't drive a car, fly in, or take the bus, how does he
get into Timber, a city in the interior? The answer may be simpler
than appearances suggest. Limousine has a wallet full of fancy
credit cards, one of which turns out to be phony. The cops have the
rest, but they're not talking. Then there's the suitcase, covered
in stickers from cities around the world, many of them places where
Sweeny himself has lived. There's also a list of cities Limousine
called just before he died, places where Sweeny too had resided.
When the mourners start to roll in, none of them family but all of
them a curious assortment of important friends from such places as
Washington, D.C., Sweeny is downright flustered. He needs a drink,
maybe two or three. Like many an alcoholic, Sweeny lets the wild
dogs of his mind loose on just who this Limousine character may
have been, tormented the whole time by the suspicion that it has
something to do with him. Is he just following a lifetime of
journalistic impulses and rooting after a good story, or is the
world really coming to his door, the door of washed-up, alcoholic
newspaperman Wilf Sweeny?
Paranoia is in the air of course. It's early 1970, according to the
Beatles newsbulletins Margoshes inserts. Apollo 13 is about to have
an accident, Vietnam is on people's minds, and Richard Nixon's face
peers out of the papers. Is Limousine a spy? Did he work for the
Then, to make Sweeny even more convinced he's at the center of
something, and in even more desperate need of a drink, a hippie's
prayer of a very young, blonde beauty named July throws herself at
him. She's ready to give him anything he wants; she insists, actually.
It's all grist for the novel she's writing. Is she crazy? Is poor,
old Sweeny crazy? Is Margoshes crazy asking us to believe this most
clichd of all male fantasies?
Irrespective of who's crazy, July becomes Sweeny's companion in his
efforts to discover Limousine's identity and whether or not he has
some connection to the deceased man.
As an "almost mystery," as one piece of publicity calls
it, Drowning Man is mostly a page-turner with a unique and engaging
plot about what kind of odd growths may spring up when we scatter
our youthful seeds. When Sweeny wanders a bit too much in the novel's
middle, so does the narrative flow, and near the end Sweeny reiterates
one too many times how he can answer a nagging question. Then there
are a few cases of adjective-itis-"her ostrich-like head bobbing
at the end of the long, cylindrical neck that rose out of the white
fluted collar of her severe black dress"-but the line about
the undertaker who looked as if "he had dressed himself following
instructions from a correspondence course for funeral attendants"
is bang on.
Sure, it's not a mystery in the accepted sense of the term, but as
an evocation of a time and place, and particularly of a newsroom
through a lonely, aging man's eyes as he tries hard to keep his
head above the tide of alcohol, and figure out just what he may be
responsible for, Drowning Man is a good yarn.
Incidentally, Margoshe's is one of two novels by Saskatchewan writers
this publishing season about washed-up, alcoholic newspapermen
living in British Columbia. Lois Simmie's What I'm Trying To Say
Is Goodbye is the other.