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Life after Crime
by Michael Greenstein

Cary Fagan takes measured risks. In his first novel, The Animals' Waltz, the beer-guzzling, factory-working, ladder-climbing Sheila, as unlike any Jewish princess from Toronto's suburbs as one could imagine, travels not only the length of Bathurst Street, but goes abroad to explore Jewish literary roots in Vienna.
In a completely different vein, The Doctor's House, his second novel, paints with a fine minimalism a portrait of Europe before the Holocaust, in a manner that brings to mind the writing of Elie Wiesel and Aharon Appelfeld. That slim novel's concluding fantasy speaks volumes about the outcome of Jewish history on the eve of World War II.
Sleeping Weather charts a middle course between minimalism and larger significance. Fagan's strengths recur in his crisp openings and closings of chapters, and in his smooth narrative pace. He eschews grand themes, a broad canvas, and intricate patterns of imagery, in favour of familiar domestic scenes. One wishes, however, for greater complexities to complement the narrative flow and straightforward dialogue.
Set mainly in Toronto, the novel centres around Leon Stone, his wife Dean, their young daughter Sylvie, and his father Mordecai. Leon works in his basement carving rocking-horses; his father, at first a watchmaker, turned to betting on horse races and running for the mob. Leon thus inherits these two different strands from his father: on the one hand, he is a careful craftsman; on the other, he has been a careless criminal, who got involved with neighbourhood gangs, and was eventually imprisoned for breaking and entering. As the novel opens, we find a completely reformed Leon, a somewhat neurotic Jewish father, taking pains to secure his own house, family, and neighbourhood. In reaction to his earlier burglary of a neighbour's house, he now stands guard over his own domestic fragility.
Fagan handles language as delicately as his protagonist treats his family and friends. The novel opens with a nursery-like quality: "The blind was decorated in half-moons, stars, the cat, the fiddle, the jumping cow, the laughing dog, the dish and spoon with spindly arms and legs and smiling faces." At times a somnolent mood hovers above Sleeping Weather, but Fagan's light touch activates the dreaminess of the Stones' lives by shifting the focus from grandfather Mordecai to granddaughter Sylvie. Watching his sleeping daughter, Leon remembers his own childhood, when everything surrounding him "had its own inner life, a kind of immanence of which adults seemed to have no awareness." Fagan does not take this into a detailed, Proustian remembrance of things past, and one wants more than the inner life, immanence, and complexity of the objective world; one wants the psychological depths of his characters.
The title comes from one of Mordecai's expressions-"Good sleeping weather"-and signifies the level of domestic comfort Leon is seeking in the midst of a potentially hostile world. Fortunately he inherits much more than this from his father. One of the major themes in the novel is a sense of connection: Leon's connection to his work, his family, and his neighbourhood. He joins wood in his work, he cares deeply for his wife, daughter, and father, and his humanity extends to many of his neighbours. Leon lives only on his street, not in Toronto; he believes in nothing except his wife and daughter. The Stones' warmth is a throwback to shtetl life in Eastern Europe; sentimentality is balanced by a Babel-like fascination with horses and the tough mob. When Mordecai invites his son to the races to watch a colt "come home," he echoes his son's "I can go home by myself." Caught between house and horse, the reader watches Leon's obsessive neighbourhood watch.
During his earlier time in prison, Leon read Dostoyevsky as if in preparation for his own underground life in the basement. "What he liked about such literature was the way the author could control his words, his story. Not the characters, who usually had no control at all." Similarly, Fagan is in control of his fiction, but his reading of Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead, his admiration for the watchmaker's "dead profession", and his setting on a dead-end street in Toronto impose severe limitations on his craft. The sudden appearance of a Russian immigrant, Vasily, next door, reinforces the motif of crime and punishment within the Stone family.
At the track, Leon's father studies the Racing Form, while Leon enjoys "the brief excitement of each race followed by the languid stretches in between." This formula could also be applied to Fagan's chapters: this novel occasionally oscillates between the Racing Form and The House of the Dead. Examining one of Leon's fine rocking-horses, Vasily comments that Leon is an artist with a gift. He modestly responds that he is only a craftsman. The distinction applies equally to the novelist who is a craftsman aspiring to the role of gifted artist.
If the basement constitutes one pole of Leon's life, the bedroom constitutes the other, whether he stands on guard over his daughter or makes love to his wife. "Fuck death, fuck death, fuck death, he thought and then she pulled him up and he was inside her deeper than he had ever been, and when he came his whole being shook as if he were both dying and being reborn." This homage to Eros and Thanatos closes one chapter and prepares for a kind of rebirth at the beginning of the next, with a flashback to Leon's childhood at the races.
Like Leon's seamless rocking-horses, Fagan's Sleeping Weather strives for seamlessness in its organic domestic details. By the end of the novel Leon finds comfortable sleeping weather and falls into the whiteness of his bed. This blank is satisfying and reassuring, but the reader wants more daring, wants to dig deeper in the basement and soar to greater heights upstairs, so that the fiction will go beyond the neighbourhood into the universals of literature. With several books to his credit, Fagan's apprenticeship is over; the time has come for him to emerge as an important writer.
What Mordecai Richler accomplished in his portrayal of Montreal's Jewish community a generation ago has not found its energetic equivalent in Toronto. In the hands of Cary Fagan and Matt Cohen, the city exposes its flatness, whereas Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces adds a poetic dimension to enhance the fiction. Michaels's claustrophilia ventures abroad, Fagan's stays home. Fagan has demonstrated that venturesome spirit in parts of The Animals' Waltz and in The Doctor's House. He has many more houses of fiction to furnish; Leon Stone does not yet belong in the esteemed quarry of The Stone Angel and The Stone Diaries. 

Michael Greenstein is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition & Discontinuity in Canadian-Jewish Literature (McGill-Queen's).


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