The Rose Tree

by Mary W. Keane,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0708933769

The Katzenbody Problem

95 pages,
ISBN: 0887532489

Some Great Thing

by Lawrence Hill,
ISBN: 0888011679

Spin Dry

by Greg Hollingshead,
210 pages,
ISBN: 0889625182


by Lee Maracle,
224 pages,
ISBN: 0919441416

Brick, Looking Up

by Grant Loewen,
190 pages,
ISBN: 0919688322

Paint Cans

by Paul Donovan,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0921586183

What Ever Happened to Sniffy Quinn?

by Derek Yetman,
ISBN: 0921692358

Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada

by Eric Zweig,
352 pages,
ISBN: 1895555078

Post Your Opinion
First Novels - Trusting Laughter
by Douglas Hill

ERIC ZWEIG's Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada (Lester, 339 pages, $17-95 paper) combines a lightly fictionalized, heavily detailed history of the game's early days with a hokey terrorist subplot. The book will be of interest chiefly to hockey fans. Whatever Happened to Snuffy Quinn? (Jesperson, 169 pages, $11.50 paper), by Derek Yetman, is a complicated, mechanical, and not very enthralling political thriller set in Africa; the plot mixes illegal ivory and a military coup. The writing is uninspired and the novel lacks life.

Sundogs (Theytus, 218 pages, $12.95 paper), by Lee Maracle, revolves around two events - both in 1990 -,of great importance for Canadian Aboriginal peoples: Elijah Harper's "No" and the Oka crisis. Maracle's narrator, Marianne, is a college student living with her mother in Vancouver, close to several married brothers and sisters; as the large family lives through the implications of domestic and cultural change, they must cope with birth and death, romance and violence. Marianne's interior monologue, presented as one long chapter, has an air of urgency, and the power of hope and faith in a just cause. As a social document, Sundogs makes a convincing case.

Fictionally there are some problems. The book is carelessly edited, filled with errors. The flow of the narrative and the crowd of characters occasionally cause a disorientation I doubt the author intended. And there are patches of argument that could have been better integrated into the story. Sundogs is affecting, but it seems to have been assembled hurriedly; Maracle's control of her materials is inconsistent, distracting the reader from the undoubted human virtues of the novel.

Mary Walkin Keane is a fine writer; her prose is graceful, evocative, witty. I enjoyed The Rose Tree (Lester, 244 pages, $16.95 paper) for its style, but felt somewhat shortchanged on content. The novel is set up as the first-person narrative of Roisin McGovern, a Dubliner in her 40s who returns for a funeral to the faded seaside resort town (Duneen, "the back of beyond") where she grew up. In a series of poignant flashbacks, Roisin relives her youthful struggles as the ugly-duckling daughter of a schoolteacher and his unhappy wife. Keane's tales are wholly charming, sad and comic by turns, and her characters are plausibly eccentric, but that's about it. Though the textures of the novel are extremely well crafted, a reader misses the patterning that would give Roisin's memories greater depth or larger significance.

Lawrence Hill's Some Great Thing (Turnstone, 240 pages, $14.95 paper) starts encouragingly, but soon tails off into fairly conventional situation-comedy foolery. Hill tells the story of Mahatma Grafton, son of a retired rail, way porter from Winnipeg, who returns in the summer of 1983 to his home town and a probationary job as a reporter on one of the local newspapers. Mahatma has an M.A. in economics from the University of Toronto and a serious case of what the author calls "the curse of his generation" - a total lack of interest in the state of the world. He is soon drawn into the inflammatory issue of French-language rights in Manitoba, with all its racial side-channels, and eventually discovers, through a growing circle of acquaintances and a series of dramatic events, that he possesses both a personal and a social conscience.

The novel is fun, even if it relies a bit heavily on stereotyped characters. The author's point of view is pleasantly ironic and the novel's depictions of the workings of a major urban daily (called The Herald) both amuse and appal, though the reader senses a good deal of exaggeration for comic effect. The book's main flaw, besides some stiff, over-formal dialogue, is its reductive approach to its materials - to character, situation, theme, plot. Hill's satire settles for laughs when it might have pushed for more painful insights.

Paint Cans (New Star, 256 pages, $14.95 paper), by Paul Donovan, is a serio-comic tour of Canada's public-sector film bureaucracy. Donovan's hero, Wick Bums, is head of the Ontario division of the national film-development agency. We watch him at work and play: lunching, conferencing, making what pass for decisions about how his budget should be spent; daydreaming, dealing with the shambles of his marital and social life, fighting with his eccentric father (who is camped, perhaps terminally, in Wick's apartment). The big question for Wick (and the novel) is whether or not funding should be given to a controversial project - an experimental and alienating meta-film (called Paint Cans) - conceived by a former schoolmate of Wick's and supported by one of the big players in the industry, an amoral producer with clout and contacts.

The novel could use some tightening. Parts are slow, even sloppy: there's too much dawdling over how Wick feels about this or that aspect of his self-image; there's too much uncertainty about pronouns; explanations such as "Wick's tone made it clear that he was joking" clog the flow of the narrative. At the end, Donovan's plot turns sensational. To its credit, the novel shows a cheerfully cynical sense of humour, and presents some clear-eyed glimpses of sexual and political jostling at the Arts trough. On the whole Paint Cans (the novel) is enjoyable; it needs a touch more concentration and finish to rise into the first rank, to run with (an obvious comparison) the film The Player.

Cadillac Songs (Not As Much Books, 313 pages, $13.95 paper), by Daniel James Wright, shows plenty of intelligence, but this novel, too, could have profited from harder editing. The style is loose and wordy (the sentence fragments are disconcerting, for one thing), the plot is far-fetched and at times tedious, and there's a certain archness to the whole production that becomes exasperating.

The novel presents two interlocked lives: Bernie Kowchuk is a researcher for a Toronto radio station, suffering through a dramatic rejection by his girlfriend Maille; Marvin Schmidt is a retired engineer who 40 years ago was involved in some widely publicized paranormal experiences. By means of a double narrative, Wright explores the backgrounds of the two characters, then their eventual meeting and friendship. There are possibilities here, but Cadillac Songs doesn't realize enough of them; there really isn't sufficient development of plot, theme, character, or context to justify the novel's length.

The gap between what is promised and what is delivered yawns wide in Brick, Looking Up (DC Books, 187 pages, $24.95 cloth, $1495 paper), by Grant Loewen. I was instructed to pre, pare for an inventive postmodernist critique of (I think) postmodernism; what I got was a fitfully interesting excursion through a few contemporary narrative modes. The novel does work - it does, on balance, justify its technical calisthenics -but the overall effect is of the "Hey, look what I can do!" sort, not a convincingly "daedelian" (the publisher's adjective) dance upon the tale's rather ho-hurn autobiographical logic.

Loewen employs several voices: Brick James, the hero; Brick's (disembodied) "amanuensis"; Brick's computer screen; Brick's technical writing (bits of how-to books he's composing); various other slices of text. A little magic realism rounds it all off. Obviously we're into self-reflexive narration here, and unfor. tunately a good deal of self-indulgent blather (not to mention some careless, clumsy writing). There are moments of insight and some successful scenes, but Brick, Looking Up doesn't finally get beyond its self-imposed paint~by-numbers deconstructionism, beyond a series of naive adventures in Kroetschland.

Tsigane Baerristein's The Katzenbody Problem (Black Moss, 95 pages, $14.95 paper) is also a collage of forms: monologue, dream, flashback, hallucination, journal entries, scraps of quotation and conversation. It's all about the problems faced by an out-of-work part-time history lecturer - middle-aged, ailing, and self-admittedly ugly beyond belief in deciding how to dispose of her cats and her corpse (Katzenbody - get it?) if and when she ends her surrealistically unhappy life. The novel has flashes of disorganized brilliance, but it's got too much stilted dialogue, too many proofreading errors, and above all too much pretentious cutesiness for my taste.

Spin Dry (Mosaic, 209 pages, $19.95 cloth), by Greg Hollingshead, is not merely fun, it's downright funny; it produced in this reader audible, frequent, and admiring laughter. The novel offers a tightly plotted mystery, a multi-layered examination of contemporary suburban angst, dialogue that sparkles, characters who stroll into stereotype and out the far side, and a heroine who is thoroughly believable in her efforts to salvage "the total disaster of her personal and emotional life." It's an energetically imaginative, precisely focused satire, with a delightful sense of comic timing.

Rachel Boseman lives with her husband, Leon, in the exploding suburb (this is not a figure of speech) of Village-on-the-Millpond, near a city very much like Toronto. Rachel is in something called dream-deprivation therapy with Dr Alex Silver, trying to confront a shadowy father-figure who may belong to her fantasies, or to Leon's dreamlife, or to the psychoses of any one of a half-dozen weird denizens of the malls and cul-de-sacs that comprise Millpond or who may actually exist. By accident she becomes involved with a self-help group for agoraphobics, and then with a radical feminist organization engaged in the militant deconstruction of the Dick and Jane readers. There is also an evil land-developer, a cat named (what else?) Puff, and a series of circumstantial and psychic coincidences that beggars summary.

Hollingshead writes a quirky, off-centre, arrhythmic prose that skewers every manner of middle-class incongruity and absurdity. Though he finds targets everywhere, he's never cruel for the sake of the joke; he seems to be working a deep vein of amused and psychologically acute compassion. The novel is rich in homey details: take-out food wonders, subdivision street-names, domestic decor, reinvigorated cliches of speech and behaviour (to match the inspired bitchiness of Rachel's mother, you need to go back to early Philip Roth). Though the human spirit at war with the suburbs may not be the most important crisis our age confronts, Hollingshead's resources of invention, technique, and structure make for an engrossing novel. After reading 54 first novels this year - some bad, some good, virtually all, retrospect tells me, pretty sober-sided - I'm ready to trust my laughter.


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