Norman Bray, in the Performance of His Life

by Trevor Cole
ISBN: 077102262X

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A Review of: Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life
by T.F. Rigelhof

When did a book prize committee ever show more courage in its literary convictions than this year's Governor-General's English-language jury for fiction? First, Andr Alexis resigned on a point of honour and then Lynn Crosbie and Kathy Page, the remaining judges, selected two first novels-Colin McAdam's Some Great Thing and Trevor Cole's Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life-as well as David Bezmozgis's debut Natasha and Other Stories to go alongside the two slam dunks of the literary year, Alice Munro's Runaway and Miriam Toews's A Complicated Kindness. In doing this and then going the whole distance by giving the prize to Toews for all the right reasons ("Toews . . . is electrifying, exciting and exact. . . . hilariously cynical and sweetly compassionate. . . . melancholic and hopeful, as beautifully complicated as life itself."), they captured the changing of the guard in Canadian fiction that this year's Giller jury almost missed completely.
For the past five years or so, it has been growing more and more evident that almost all the really interesting works of fiction written about Canadians at home and abroad are being penned by writers born after 1960. There's no great surprise in this: as Ronald Wright notes in his splendid A Short History of Progress, "few people past fifty can keep up with their culture-whether in idiom, attitudes, taste, or technology-even if they try." What is surprising is how very good the current crop of younger novelists are at absolutely nailing the idioms, attitudes, tastes and technophobias of their parent's generation. Trevor Coles great achievement in Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life is (in the words of the GG jury) "to write seductively and sympathetically about someone as narcissistic and bullying as is actor Norman Bray, leaving the reader in a wonderfully uneasy state of delight and horror."
Everybody knows at least one Baby Boomer who is very much like Norman Bray. Guaranteed. He's ubiquitous. No, he's not Everyman. Au contraire, the Norman Brays of our world are anything but common. As they are the first to tell you, they are precious, very precious. Why? Because to their way of thinking (and their way of thinking is the only one that really matters), they have superior talent, finer sensitivity and more refinement in clothes, drink, music than the rest of the world. They are artists who never compromise and we are not. To most of us, of course, most of the time, they are something else entirely: lazy, lecherous monsters of self-absorption, petty moochers and annoying time-wasters, addled and raddled misfits who never quite connect with our everyday world of earning a living, paying bills, establishing and maintaining reciprocal relationships. We'd ignore them if we could but they won't let us. They insist on making their larger-than-life presence felt in the smallest of circumstances. Besides, they do have a talent to amuse and charm in small and endearing ways even if we only ever get their full attention by putting their name in front of whatever we have to say to them.
The title character in Trevor Cole's brilliant and side-splitting funny first novel, Norman Bray in the Performance of his Life, is an aptly named jackass. He's a fifty-something musical theatre actor who likes to think that his very best role is Don Quixote in Man of LaMancha which he last played at a dinner theatre in Beverly, Ontario, an hour north of Toronto. Despite being given "The Mirror Award" because he "saved it from disaster" as the solitary professional in an otherwise amateur production, the only work he's had since the curtain dropped on his knight errant three years earlier is as the voice of Tiny in Tiny Taxi, a cheaply animated toddler show on a cable channel. At the novel's hilarious opening, Bray is lunching at The Skelton Arms prior to taping new episodes at a Jarvis Street studio. As he fails to interest his pub waitress in finding him his favourite brandy or noting his gastronomic preferences in shepherd's pie or succumbing to his "potent charms," Norman decides "she is obviously a girl who doesn't know what she wants, doesn't know what sort of man he is, and has no idea of his range of knowledge or experience. So, with some effort, he manages to feel sorrier for her than for himself. He will be satisfied with the shepherd's pie, even if it is slightly less meaty than he prefers. He will make a point of it. . . . It will require a unique strength of will but, in his life and work, Norman has found it necessary to overcome discomfort, and so he has mastered the skill, a fact he would be happy to share with the waitress, if only she were less grumpy."
Feeling himself so chronically underappreciated, Bray never connects the grumpiness of the various women in his life with his obliviousness to his failings as a lover, friend, surrogate parent, brother and "leading man." When Amy, the daughter of his deceased longtime companion, nervously reconsiders the appropriateness of the outfit she has chosen for dinner with him, she stops in mid-thought, "Norman would hardly notice if she came wearing a clown's baggy pants and big-foot shoes."
Bray walks away from his job on the kiddies' show rather than accept demotion to the role of villain of the series ("I'm the lead.") in the hope that his sister and her disability pension will see him through until something more fitting comes along. Much to his surprise, she has found a blue collar lover who is unwilling to have a cuckoo foul their basement love nest. When the bank sends a foreclosure notice (Norman has ignored making a year's worth of payments on the mortgaged house in Parkdale that he inherited from Amy's mother), Bray finds that to keep his home on not-yet-gentrified Sorauren Avenue, he has to take on windmills truly worth tilting against-a Latin American boarder who is more willing to suffer indignities on behalf of her art than even he is and a bank-appointed job counsellor who takes his job as seriously as the actor takes himself. It's at this point that Norman Bray comes to life as a knight of doleful countenance, who has more in common with Cervantes's protagonist than he has ever imagined. When Henninger, the man from the bank, talks to him about the "basic necessities," Bray asks if "joy" and "the pursuit of inspiration" are included.
Stylistically, Trevor Cole (a witty and highly regarded writer for Report on Business) is more than a little reminiscent of Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy). Cole has a similar eye for the physical and emotional minutiae that obsessive-compulsives feed upon, but he has ingested the much richer fare of Cervantes: Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life is a subtle work of art that transforms the story of a mundane actor into something older and less fathomable than a trendy tale of self-redemption among the self-absorbed. By having other characters (the surrogate daughter Amy in particular) demand answers from him that he's ill-prepared to give, Bray increasingly senses the limits of his own awareness and is led (and his readers with him) to ask questions "he can't remember ever asking before." As the actor grudgingly wins a little admiration and affection from us through his resiliency, we "confront a reflecting mirror that awes us even while we yield to delight," as Harold Bloom says of Cervantes. This is a remarkable achievement, a book to be cherished both for the depths of its ironies and the breadth of its responsiveness.

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