In the Place of Last Things

by Michael Helm
ISBN: 077104125X

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A Review of: In the Place of Last Things
by Eric Miller

Michael Helm's In the Place of Last Things is a good novel. It not only provokes thought, but it also sustains thought well beyond its conclusion. I say this despite the fact that I have never thrown a punch in all my adult life or picked a physical fight-violence is as alien to me as it is familiar to Helm's protagonist, the 230-pound Russ Littlebury. Helm gets the reader inside the mind of a man whose strong intellect cannot suspend a reflex toward the exercise of force, force at least temporarily conceived of as righteous. Littlebury possesses brains, and has refined those brains in the academic study of philosophy. Philosophy, sometimes very elliptical philosophy, repeatedly glosses an elementary theme of Helm's book: "Men being stupid together"-men drinking, men cheating, men brawling, men inflicting diverse pain. Tara Harding, with whom Littlebury has had an affair, puts the matter plainly: "I love men, and I don't mean to be essentialist, but the numbers mean something The testes make you want to hurt things, it's a trend throughout the species Not to overstate it, you are all about hitting and fucking. For part of every day I wish you'd all go to hell." These bald words, from a letter Tara writes to Littlebury, point up a weakness in Helm's book: it fluctuates between the imponderable and the schematic, like the discipline of philosophy itself. If the character, Littlebury, succumbs to bouts of violence, then the book in which he appears is, as though afflicted by a parallel debility, prone to short seizures of self-explication. The particularized persuasiveness of the story overcomes these spots of glibness, which only transiently short-change the novel's nuance and stall its momentum.
As In the Place of Last Things begins, Russ Littlebury has entered a private hell, a plausibly masculine hell: his beloved father Mike has died. It is Mike's decline and death that have concluded Russ Littlebury and Tara Harding's romance. Littlebury cannot integrate the small Saskatchewan town from which he originates with Tara Harding or her milieu-she moves in a Toronto world of educated, optimistic and somewhat nave leftist activism. Littlebury admits to himself, "He measured all others and himself against his father, and he and they together fell short." Who was this exemplary Mike Littlebury? A big man who "used to really raise hell"-a man whose body a German bullet scarred in the Second World War. Mike is also a man who sincerely converted in mid-life to the Christian faith, earning admiration in the Christian community of both the United States and Canada. Once the reader absorbs the facts of Mike Littlebury's life, the character begins (without forfeiting his overall plausibility) to seem a partial emblem of his nation in his time: strong, reckless, a touch brutal, marked by participation in the Second World War, reforming earnestly to achievable virtue. He is the bruiser who aspires, belatedly but successfully, to a populist version of Judaeo-Christian goodness. His death may signify the end of a special phase of Canadian striving, rough-edged but public-spirited.
No wonder Russ Littlebury feels that he cannot aspire so high. Having in one episode induced an "oxygen debt" through hyperventilation, perceiving that this state results in something physiologically akin to religious exaltation, Littlebury admits that although he "had no faith in God, he did have faith in faith." This faith Russ has derived from observing his father. Mike's son Russ may himself embody a definite Canadian demographic-the offspring of those who tried to develop a practicable version of the welfare state in the aftermath of the Second World War, a generation that does not believe as wholeheartedly as its parents in a supreme being; such a belief often encourages the pursuit of political ideals against worldly opposition. Tara Harding offers the necessary complement to Russ and Mike: she is described as "mixed race," "the skin dusted a half-shade darker than [Russ's] own, a slight kink in her short hair." Her upbringing was considerably more privileged than Russ's. She is trilingual and bisexual. She inhabits the Canada of official and unofficial multiculturalism, as something of a secular crusader. Her motive force is not religious conviction, but a measure of class guilt.
In his 2002 essay collection When Words Deny the World, Stephen Henighan decries with variable justice the capitulation of Canadian writers to what he terms "Free Trade Fiction." Henighan censures the willingness of certain practitioners, such as Anne Michaels, to locate their novels in a realm where history dissolves into metaphor and Canadian realities vanish before the presumed ethical and aesthetic superiority of other places and other times. In the Place of Last Things is a NAFTA novel with a difference, a difference of which I imagine Henighan would approve.
After Mike's death, Russ undertakes to drive his Aunt Jean to Arizona; his father Mike used to perform this seasonal service. Russ's adoptive brother Skidder comes along for the ride. In Montana, the mnage stops at the Bollins household-Christians inspired by Mike's example. Grant Bollins's 17-year-old daughter Lea reveals that she has had a clandestine affair with one Jack Marks. This Jack Marks apparently feigned a faith healing in the hopes of captivating just such a young woman as Lea-he is the kind of character about whom Lynn Crosbie might write, a man who enters a girl's imaginary world with the aim of penetrating her body, bruising her heart and abandoning her. Michael Helm prevents the reader from identifying Marks directly with the United States: "A lying heartbreaker, prone to self-reinvention. Described one way, Jack Marks was an American trope, but the unmythologized, actual person was simply a candidate for a thundering comeuppance." The parallel Canadian myth would discover in Russ Littlebury the diffident but ultimately effective vindicator of Lea's virtue-a virtue about which she seems little concerned. She wants Jack Marks back, and enlists the giddy Skidder as her accomplice in an attempt to track her ex-lover to Texas. The way the story plays out, Russ Littlebury's intervention in the life and affairs of Jack Marks remains permanently ambiguous.
In Skidder, Russ Littlebury's adoptive brother, Michael Helm perhaps presents the reader with another personification of Canada-chronically juvenile, a hoser, a hick, a loser, the sort of person who watches cartoons in an ill-heated disaster-zone of a house while eating a stack of pancakes saturated in maple syrup and wondering sincerely whether the cartoon characters by which he is fixated are intended to be human or animal. Skidding is easy to do in Canada, on winter highways. Skidder even skids between realms: despite his silliness, he shows a serious affinity for the realm of beasts. His puzzlement over whether a cartoon character is human or animal gains greater resonance when, in the miasma of an American tavern toilet, he speaks up, somewhat surreally, for the vanishing wolf and the expropriated Indian. His closeness to the aboriginal is purged of sentimentality by those traits of his that render him an unmistakable fool-no holy fool, either. Predictably, Skidder and Lea's quest for Jack Marks fails. Littlebury alone follows Marks into Mexico.
Here, whether consciously or not, Michael Helm completes a triptych of NAFTA. Mike and Russ and Tara and Skidder compositely body forth an idea of Canada, a Canada variously noble, deluded, disappointed, ludicrous; Jack Marks and the Bollins family-a con man and assorted believers-comprise complementary elements of U.S. society. Jack Marks has ventured into Mexico, and Russ Littlebury follows him, ostensibly to deliver a letter from Lea. He observes the criminal milieu into which Marks has led him: "With all its downscale locales, its beater cars and frayed clothing, its mean adherence to the misfit type, there was something not entirely real about the world of these men. The dramatics were so cheap and badly stylized they belonged now to rerun cop shows on television. You looked at Marks and his friends and thought they were headed for a bad ending by the top of the next hour." Russ Littlebury himself almost comes to a bad ending in Juarez; with his strength-part of his genetic patrimony-he hurts some Mexicans who assume his complicity with Marks, and he realizes "the damage is not redressable." Perplexed, moody, Littlebury, like many Canadians abroad, is half criminalized by his incomprehension of the ways of a foreign world. Michael Helm's novel concludes, it is arguable, with an equivocal moral: all gains are ill gotten, yet they may notwithstanding retain their status as gains.
It should be said that Helm often writes beautifully, as when, succumbing to the effects of a spiked tequila, Russ Littlebury experiences an efflux of memories:

"He saw his boyhood dog on a river island tugging at the skeleton of an enormous sand crane until it reared up as if to lift off. The heel of his uncle's hand punched the throttle on an old truck in procession on the unimproved cemetery road with the stones scattering against the undercarriage as he remembered hiding in the machine shed with his hands over his ears as the hail spent its full worth against the steel roof. Dimeless before bakery sweets and inside the case the hand of a woman who let him look but only teased she'd sneak him a taste At the front of an early schoolroom the queen's photoportrait sitting high above the alphabet with Canada in pink on a map of the world until the forty-ninth became a sickle ooze of blood where the fallen drainpipe sliced the lifeline in his palm."

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