The Projectionist (Douglas & McIntyre, 299 pages, $18.99 trade paperback), by Michael Helm, one of the nominees for the prestigious Giller Prize, is a hard book not to fence-sit about. Although the writing is assured, especially considering this is a first novel, the overall effect of the book is that it is a "pose", a carefully crafted bit of cleverness.
The narrator, the thirty-two-year-old Wesley "Toss" Raymond, lives near the small farming community of Mayford, Saskatchewan, which is suffering from its worst drought in decades. The novel opens in the summer of 1988, the "summer of sobering first anniversaries" for Toss. It's been a year since his wife left him, and a year since he fuelled his reputation as a trouble-maker by hitting the neighbour he mistakenly thought was having an affair with her. As a result, his job as a high school history teacher is now in jeopardy.
As the school term ends, Toss is busy pursuing Karen Shaulter, who has issues of her own to deal with. She grew up in Mayford but has been living with her eighteen-year-old daughter, born out of wedlock, in Vancouver. She's now back in town to take care of her aging mother and must decide whether she will stay in Mayford or return to Vancouver.
Toss's treatment of Karen reflects his ambivalence about his own life: he wants her but keeps her at arm's length. Arm's length, in general, is the distance at which Toss seems most comfortable operating. Unfortunately, since it is his voice speaking throughout the novel, the reader isn't allowed close either. Toss is moody and ironic, a loner who fancies himself a renegade with an inclination toward intellectual "insightfulness". This is an interesting combination, but undermined at every turn by Toss's relentless cleverness.
The projectionist of the title is the eccentric Dewey Beyer, who runs the local movie theatre and is engaged in a continuing battle with the community over issues of propriety. He accuses the townsfolk of smallmindedness, berates them for not seeing past their petty concerns and for not considering the world at large, the important things that are truly worth getting worked up about. In a sense, this is part of Toss's personal evolution too. But it would be a lot more compelling if readers could experience it emotionally rather than merely observe it from several feet away.