The Truth About Death and Dying

by Rui Umezawa
291 pages,
ISBN: 0385659083

Several Women Dancing

by Paul Dutton
204 pages,
ISBN: 1551280965

Acting the Giddy Goat

by Mike Tanner
387 pages,
ISBN: 1896951392

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First Novels
by W.P. Kinsella

Acting the Giddy Goat by Mike Tanner (Cormorant Books, $22.95, 387pages, ISBN: 1896951392). There are some wonderful moments in this very Toronto novel. (1) a pompous PhD. in Philosophy who thinks he is God's gift to the university system, can't get a college job and is reduced to teaching kindergarten where he finds out that five-year-olds have no concept of logic, and he has to resort to an air horn to keep them in line. (2) an arts community, that could be in any city in Canada, is captured perfectly, as minimally talented artists, filmmakers and musicians drink voraciously and are jealous and critical of anyone who has achieved success. (3) a brewmaster at Pilchak's U-Brew Palace, who seldom seems to have any work to do, makes pretentious notes about writing the novel we are reading. (4) Adam, a guy who fainted at his wedding, is like virtually everyone in the novel, underemployed. He theoretically teaches English to new immigrants, but the courses are created by bureaucrats and are worthless. (5) an aging musician, Johnny Raccoon, who has to busk in the subway to make ends meet, finally gets a record deal only to have it sabotaged by ignorant executives. There are many little lectures on the ills of society, most hit the mark, though a few are preachy. There are a number of surreal touches as shrimp on a plate at a restaurant converse with the diner, a woman has an animated conversation with a portrait she is painting, while another character sees the quatrains of Omar Khayyam appear in the fog surrounding Toronto streetlights. The story slows down in the middle and a good editor could have created a shorter and better book, but this still qualifies as the funniest first novel of 2002.

The Truth About Death and Dying, by Rui Umezawa (Doubleday, $32.95, 291 pages, ISBN: 0385659083), is a generational saga of a Japanese family, beginning in Japan, moving to the United States and finally to Canada. The family and their friends are beset by a series of tragedies, but they endure as if the misfortune is an expected part of life. Some of the characters are eccentric, and some of the material is very humorous in spite of the macabre tone. "He played the piano like Godzilla walks." The narrative is laden with characters and sometimes a little confusing, but worth staying the course of this story that runs the gamut of human emotions.

Several Women Dancing, by Paul Dutton (Mercury Press, $17.95, 204 pages, ISBN: 1551280965), has the distinction of being the oddest novel of 2002. Odd is not necessarily bad. The narrator, who is nameless until the final sentence of the book (then again the name at the end of the book may not be his) is not only unreliable, but perhaps even hallucinatory. Whoever he may be, he has a terrible crush, a full-blown obsession actually, on a stripper named Blackie. He spends all his time creating sexual fantasies about Blackie, neglecting his job and other aspects of his life. Slowly, slowly, he makes contact with Blackie and after a number of rejections, they date and eventually fall in love (we think). If there is a moral it might be: Be careful or you might get what you think you want. When Blackie announces her pregnancy the narrator has mixed feelings to say the least. My guess is that few women will like this story. On the other hand men who like reading male masturbatory fantasies will wear out the pages. The writing, while generally competent, is as odd as other aspects of the book. Sentences run on for six or seven pages at a time, reminiscent of the least interesting work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I'm sure it is intentional that the reader seldom knows whether what is happening is real, fantasy, hallucination, or dream. I won't even comment on the narrator's possible Oedipus Complex. A strange but compelling read.

W. P. Kinsella reads first novels and plays in Scrabble tournaments.

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