Gelignite Jack

by Paul Davies,
128 pages,
ISBN: 1550650807

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Brief Reviews
by Judith Fitzgerald

Paul Davies's Gelignite Jack (Véhicule, 128 pages, $10 paper) is his sixth book since 1992. Its suite of three stories opens with "A Sweet Comedy", a title recalling Quince's "most lamentable comedy" from A Midsummer Night's Dream. A pair of youthful thespians, Lindsay and Andy, co-inhabit a tiny apartment in Toronto's Annex during the days when the hippie haven Rochdale College made national headlines. These two "green" protagonists aspire to make their marks on the professional stage. Salient details of their individual struggles and exploits interweave with the cryptically relayed main-frame narrative featuring the suite's star protagonist, an apparent "seer" and one-time choral conductor at Exeter Cathedral, Geoff Douglas (a.k.a. Gelignite Jack).

The middle sequence, "Apostrophe", apparently disconnected and utterly disorienting in terms of narrative, characters, setting, and such, revolves around Arctic oil-and-gas exploration. Its Red Green epigraph-"If the women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy"-proves irresistible. Mr. Douglas, though he is the suite's main character, doesn't put in an appearance (or so it seems).

Then, in the concluding entry, Gelignite Jack resurfaces. This time, we learn a great deal about our Mr. Douglas through a sustained dialogue between grandmother Gwyn and granddaughter Roxanne in Gwyn's pre-war house in present-day Vancouver, even as we slowly discover the absolute relevance of the title "East Fortieth" by the time the suite concludes with a bang, detonating in the mind of an astute reader with ripples of comprehension yielding to a tidal wave of awe.

The existential who-done-it (and what-to-whom) develops and resolves itself through a series of techniques that Davies borrows from theatre: hearsay, quick-change artistry, narrative-within-narrative, and flashback foremost among them.

Coincidentally (as if!), "Gelignite Jack", the name given to World War II heroes who defused unexploded bombs, also proves applicable to Davies's first full-length fictional work, a suite of puzzles of the first order.

The plot and its resolution, framed within its theatrical contents and context, contains a dénouement that occurs offstage (and off the page), deftly leading readers to the works of Shakespeare (including Hamlet), Eliot (Four Quartets), and Wyndham Lewis (whose 1918 ink-and-watercolour "Laying, or the Howitzer" graces Gelignite Jack's cover) in its seamless unravelling.

But what does "gelignite" mean?

"That's the explosive glycerine goop packed inside. They usually had to open the casings and scoop this stuff out to make the bombs safe. It was unstable and volatile, with a powerful ammonia smell that tore at your eyes and nose. Dangerous and unpleasant work," Lindsay explains to Andy.

In 128 pages, Davies manages to tell three fiercely independent stories that, in sum, carry Gelignite Jack's dominant narrative and collectively constitute one of the most ingenious compact pieces in detective fiction.

Judith Fitzgerald


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