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Amazed And Bemused
by Gary Draper

IT'S POSSIBLE, sometimes, to dislike a novel so intensely that it becomes interesting. I hated reading Jim Parrs Megafart (Lugus, 299 pages, $10.00 paper), but I found thinking about the book afterward quite enjoyable, simply because it made me ask so many questions about what is funny and why, about the nature of satire, about differences in taste. Heres the story: two moronic low?lifes make a fortune in the junk/health food business with a concoction made of corn cobs, called "TRASH!" Then along comes a bunch of other people who start a competing line called "JUNK?" The issue of whether one product or the other causes more farting becomes central to their advertising campaigns, and the "TRASH!" people join forces with the head of a phony evangelical church who, for a cut, attempts to persuade his flock of the virtues of flatulence. Do I need to say where the story goes from here? After all, the book is called Megafart, and subtlety, it turns out, is not one of Parr's strengths. There are, I think, four things wrong with this hook. The first is structure. Megafart is a very shaggy dog story. But Parr gives away the punchline by having the climactic event Occur at the outset of the novel. This still might be made to work if there were surprises along the way, but the plot is distressingly predictable. Besides, there are too many digressions here for even the shaggiest dog. Parr devotes a whole chapter, for example, to an airplane trip taken by two lovers so that they can have sex in the toilet. They do. The man throws his back out. Everybody is embarrassed. The plane trip is utterly irrelevant to anything that precedes or follows it. The reader simply loses (or, more likely, never achieves) interest. Second, characters. There is a large cast in this novel, some of whom have walk?on parts, some of whom stay till the bitter end. Parr gives each of them a history and a few distinguishing tics, but never invests any of them with life: they are stick figures who exist only to be laughed at. Many of them are offensive stereotypes: the greedy Jewish businessman, the lazy Scottish union steward. The third problem is burnout. As Stephen Leacock pointed out, it's the one thing most people refuse to admit they lack. But judging by what Parr thinks is funny and what I think is funny, we might as well come from different planets. Fatting is the major source of humour here, but sex, greed, and masturbation all get turns. And in the right hands, so to speak, these are funny topics. But none of them are inherently so: they have to be made funny. And this is what Parr fails to do. The fourth weakness is credibility. Even in a work of satire, the reader needs a credible, acceptable world, even if it doesn't correspond to the one the reader lives in. The distancing effect of wholly unlikable, cardboard characters is a factor in this problem. But if the author is going to distance his reader, then he better dazzle him in exchange. Metafart is no dazzler, though it frequently strains to be witty and clever. I'm hard pressed to remember a book I liked less. Grace Lake (NeWest, 155 pages, $8.95 paper), by Glen Huser, is, by contrast, a book Of remarkable sensitivity. In some ways this is conventional ground. The central figure, John Hislop, is an aging music teacher who returns to summer camp as a Counsellot. There he reflects on a past of suppressed desire, barely acknowledged homosexuality, and guilt. He focuses on a handful of important times and people in his life, only slowly beginning to come to terms with their meaning and importance for him. Huser does an excellent job with the tricky business of managing Hislop's present life, the jumbled fragments of his past, and troubled dreams that mix up parts of both; the effect of the cumulative past and present is real and vivid. This is how stream of consciousness should he ?? but seldom is ?? managed. A second virtue of this book is the character of Hislop himself: he is a whole human being, complete with faults, strengths, and unfulfilled desires. I left the hook feeling I had met and known John Hislop, not that I had encountered him in the pages of a novel. Huser is also a splendid prose stylist. He pays attention, as few writers do, to the rhythms of his words. I'm afraid that if I call the book poetic, I'll put off some potential readers. What I mean is this: Huser has an ear for the real rhythms of speech, and for the natural, but different, rhythms of written prose. Moreover, the density of the imagery, the repetition (of image and event and character), and relative brevity (compared to the depth and breadth of content) all suggest a long poem as much as a novel. Another strength of the novel is its depiction of camp life. Sadness, failure, and youthful exuberance and rebellion are all captured here. The boys, though most are only briefly sketched, are credible. And Travis Carroway, the evil genius Of this year's crop, is a believable troublemaker, as well as being a symbol of dark forces. Which reminds me that the symbolism here is properly muted. Though it is grace and absolution that Hislop seeks at Grace Lake, Huser does not, for the most part, lean on his symbols. They are effective without being insistent. I was reminded from time to time of Ernest Buckler's best book, The Mountain and the Valley: Huser shares Buckler's sensitivity to nature (including human nature), his eye for the telling detail, his insight and honesty about the way people really act and think, and his sense of tragedy at unfulfilled lives. There are some mysteries in the novel that are never fully unravelled. This seems right in the case of some of John Hislop's broken or thwarted relationships; it would be highly improbable for him to reflect on them as if he were providing plot summaries for the unambitious reader. But I felt something lacking in the detail of his own life. He seldom reflects on how he has spent the last 20 or more years, or on what he has done with his days. As a result, I kept thinking of him as much younger than he must be according to the book's chronology. However, this is a small flaw in a remarkably strong first novel. Helen Pereira's Magpie in the Tower (Creative Publishers, 117 pages, unpriced), is also a book of considerable sensitivity. It tells the story of Sheila Harris, who goes back to Ireland to escape some of the pressures of home and self, and to find some time to write. In a sequence of seven chapters, one for each of the magpies in the verse that provides the novel's epigraph and its title, she begins to discover herself through exploring an exotic land. Two of the chapters appeared elsewhere as short stories, and the book's limitations are related to the fact that the work is a hybrid of short?story sequence and novel. I'm not suggesting that a novel is a better thing that) a sequence of stories, but it is a different thing, and Pereira has not quite chosen one form or the other. The result is a story sequence arranged chronologically and given several common threads. Unfortunately the stories lack cumulative power; the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, though there are some excellent individual chapters. I was especially taken with one in which Sheila hears a voice on the radio, and goes in quest of, as it turns Out, Mary, the Mother of God. There is a wonderful combination of magic and reality here. Another chapter, about the visit to a pub by a group of elderly psychiatric patients, is a splendid story (it has already ?? and deservedly ?? appeared in Best American Short Stories 1989), which does little to advance the development of the central character in ways that interrelate with the rest of the book. One of Pereira's greatest strengths is her obvious affection for her characters. This is not to say she ladles on the sugar: there are people in this book who are threatening, absurd, delightful, mean ?? pretty much the whole range. But all are observed with love, with the kind of attention that is a form of love. Pereira cares enough about them to try to get them right, and whole, and she succeeds. Magpie in the Tower is particularly good on the outsider in a new world, and on the desire to remake ?? or at least renew ?? oneself in middle age. This is a very enjoyable book. To say that it might have been better is not to detract from its very real successes. Paul Ross's Four Corners on Main Street (Somerville House, 125 pages, $19.95 cloth) is told from the point of view of a social worker who's married to a lawyer named Faith, and whose latest concern is Roger, a street kid in trouble with the law. The story is complex enough, one strand dealing with the narrator's own strained marriage, the other with Roger and his mother, the police, and the justice system. The novel starts humorously, with some serious social concerns. The comic tone remains, but the story darkens considerably, especially after Roger's death in police custody. Ross has a lively, inventive, engaging voice, and I found myself carried on the strength of that voice despite the novel's disconcerting shift in tone. The text is sprinkled with intimate, disarming asides. After a comment on his less?than?successful honeymoon with Faith, he says to the reader, "Hey, do me a favour. Don't get smug, OK!" He undercuts himself ("Faith says I'm full of shit"), and he makes some pungent observations on a variety of social topics. Here he is on the difference between doctors and lawyers: Doctors love to make money but hate to spend it on anyone except themselves. Lawyers love to spend money on everything ... even if sometimes the money isn't their own. Here's another difference: lawyers take the time to listen to their clients, sometimes for hours. Maybe that's because lawyers are paid by the hour, not the procedure. I don't know. The fact that Ross is himself a lawyer means that what could be a sneer has the charm of self mockery. I found the sudden shift, after which the novel darkens to despair, rather hard to adjust to, and the ending somewhat inconclusive. Nonetheless there is so much here to be enjoyed that I am very much looking forward to Ross's next. He is a strongly original writer. Kate Pullinger's When the Monster Dies (Random House, 173 pages, $23.95 cloth) seemed to me much less successful. Her narrative voice is sour and superior and she tries too hard to be clever. This is a book about the decline of the British Empire (the "monster" of the title), surely a rich field for satire, but Pullinger paints in too?broad strokes, and sometimes seems to eschew fiction entirely in favour of heartfelt, critical exposition. For example, her heroine, Mary Rose, "doubted that the New Britain was truly an enterprise culture. Was there really no room for painters, homosexuals, radicals nor any kind of Other?" There is far too much undramatized talk, far too little action. Imagine Bernard Shaw at his talkiest, but without a sense of burnout. And I found it no easier to like the self?absorbed, depressing people here than I did the ciphers of Megafart. One of her characters says, "I find it hard to take something in unless I have somebody I can feel sympathetic towards." I know just how she feels. For all my reservations about this book, Pullinger is a writer to watch. Two of the central images here are the Roman Bath that ties beneath Mary Rose's garden at the novel's opening, and the destruction of the Battersea Power Station at its close. The latter loses some of its resonance by being hinted at and talked about too much in advance, but both images are brilliantly conceived, and they carry a good deal of power despite the novel's faults. Perhaps Pullinger needs to take the advice that Holy Mary gives Sheila Harris in Magpie in the Tower: "Remember, speak before you think. That goes for writing, too."

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