Gently Down the Stream

by Ray Robertson
300 pages,
ISBN: 1896951678

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Another Man Unwilling to Grow Up
by Lisa Salem-Wiseman

It's tempting to read Ray Robertson's fourth novel, Gently Down the Stream, as thinly veiled autobiography. After all, both Robertson and his protagonist, Hank Roberts, have degrees in philosophy from the University of Toronto, both live in the Toronto neighbourhood of Parkdale with their wives (Mary is Hank's, Mara is Ray's) and dogs (Barry is Hank's, Barney is Ray's), and both teach creative writing part time at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. Apart from the fact that one is fictional and the other real, the most obvious distinction between Roberts and Robertson is that the former is a failed writer and the latter is a successful one; Robertson's previous novel, Moody Food, was chosen as a 2003 Best Book selection by both the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. Robertson is also the author of Mental Hygiene, a collection of articles about writers and writing, a frequent reviewer of books in major Canadian newspapers, and a regular guest on TVO's book discussion show, Imprint. On the other hand, Hank, who once had aspirations of being a published philosopher, is now reduced to taking unsatisfying part-time editing and teaching jobs, which he gets through his wife Mary and his friend Phil. Although Hank pretends to be working on a book, he fills his days and nights by running errands for Mary, drinking-increasingly alone, as his wife and friends all begin to have better things to do-and walking his dog. Meanwhile, both Mary and Phil are successful artists; Mary is a painter who supports both herself and Hank with a job as a graphic designer with the Canadian Cancer society, while Phil has become a successful published poet.
As Robertson has made clear in his reviews and articles, he has no patience with the pretensions of the Toronto literary scene, which he slyly skewers in several scenes in this novel. Rebecca, Phil's girlfriend, is vacuous, condescending, pretentious, talentless-and, to Hank's great annoyance, a very successful writer. She has achieved what Hank has always wanted for himself by capitalizing on both her looks and current literary trends. Hank attributes her fame to her beauty: "Say what you want about her novels, the woman definitely does take a great author photo." Fans of roman a clef will have fun matching the fictional characters with their real-life antecedents. For example, Nathan, the author of Nuon, a book of poems "made up entirely of nouns" bears an undeniable resemblance to Christian Bk, whose Eunoia consists of five chapters, each using only one vowel. After winning the 2002 Griffin Poetry Prize, worth $40,000, Eunoia, like Nuon, went on to become "the biggest-selling book in the history of Canadian poetry." This leads one to wonder who the real-life model might be for Rebecca, the "self-described experimental novelist", and whether she is still speaking to Robertson.
Robertson's knack for creating interesting characters is matched by his ear for language, and Gently Down the Stream has a great opening line: "She says she doesn't understand why I worship the dead." While literally referring to Hank's adoration of the writers and musicians of past eras, it can be understood as extending to his general reluctance to let go of the past-whether it be high school friendships, the bar he frequented as an undergraduate, the carefree existence of his university days, or the shabbiness of his neighbourhood, which is being lost to gentrification. He continually measures himself against an ideal he had of who he would be as an adult; in fact, he seems paralyzed by his inability to abandon this ideal and get a life. Hank is living in a state of perpetual adolescence, supported by his wife, who manages to be both an artist and a provider, while Hank himself lives a hedonistic life that revolves around his favourite bar, the Duke of Connaught. Scanning the employment ads, Hank wryly notes the lack of suitable jobs for someone of his talents and interests:

"Nope, no immediate openings for occasional inscribers of thoughtful bon mots today; nor for people who like to read late-nineteenth century Russian novels and talk about them while tramping through the leaves in High Park, bondable individuals with a background in mid-period Rolling Stones (knowledge of Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main Street essential), or men or women with a strong interest in drinking cold beer in their backyard on warmish but not yet hot late-summer evenings."

Although Hank Roberts seems to be a fictional analogue for Ray Robertson, the novel is, thankfully, not wholly sympathetic to his point of view and thus manages to narrowly escape the charge of self-indulgence. It is clear that something will have to change for Hank. In protest against the seemingly inevitable transformation of his friends, his wife, his neighbourhood and even his dog, Hank takes a job as the karaoke-night doorman at the Gladstone hotel, becomes addicted to a combination of coffee and Sudafed, and begins a campaign of petty vandalism of the trappings of bourgeois, grownup existence that are invading his neighbourhood. Finally, one irresponsible act, prompted by the news of yet another impending change, nearly destroys everything that he realizes he loves and he grasps that he himself needs to adapt.
The fact that this is a coming-of-age novel about a thirty-seven-year-old man is not as ridiculous as it may sound. Gently Down the Stream reminds me of the novels of Nick Hornby, a writer whose work I both admire and enjoy. The writing has a similar wit, and intelligence, and equally captures the dilemmas of a particular demographic-the thirtysomething, university-educated, music-loving, urban heterosexual male. Hank's ongoing discussion with Simon, an employee at the Roncesvalles record store, She Said Boom!, about the best double-album of all time would not be out of place in Hornby's High Fidelity, while Hank's attempts to give meaning to his existence are reminiscent of How to Be Good and About a Boy. Hank, like many of Hornby's characters, belatedly realizes that he must relinquish-or at least modify-his hedonistic, irresponsible ways and impractical obsessions and grow up.
While it is to Robertson's credit as a writer that Hank remains likeable and sympathetic, when he could have become grating and pathetic, there is one aspect of Hank's redemption that I found annoying: like other contemporary male writers, Hornby included, Robertson assigns the task of dragging the belatedly adolescent male kicking and screaming into adulthood to women. Phil's professional, financial and social transformation is largely attributed to Rebecca, who is increasingly portrayed as a supportive companion to Phil (if still an execrable novelist). Hank undergoes a makeover of his own, at Mary's insistence. Meanwhile, Hank's friend Brad is thirty-seven and unemployed, continues to live in his mother's basement, smoking dope and listening to Doors albums, and is contemplating getting his lift-truck license as it will allow him to set his own hours. Brad, of course, has no girlfriend; if he did, she would surely put a stop to this nonsense.
However, this condescending tendency to characterize men as children who depend on women for focus, direction and motivation does not diminish what Robertson has achieved in this novel. With Gently Down the Stream, he has given readers a funny, recognizable, contemporary portrait of disaffected manhood in downtown Toronto. One of the strengths of this novel is its evocation of a neighbourhood on the cusp of gentrification, with "satellite dishes like cancer cells crawling up the sides of vine-covered, century-old homes." It is also refreshing to read a novel set in Canada that does not try to mask or downplay its location; like Sara Dearing's Courage My Love and Michael Winter's This All Happened, Gently Down the Stream does not disguise local businesses and landmarks with clever pseudonyms, but proudly declares itself to be of a particular place, situating itself among such Parkdale haunts as the Duke of Connaught, the Gladstone Hotel, Sorauren Park, and the Easy Restaurant. Fans of the novel could easily put together a tour of "Hank's Parkdale"; in a move that perhaps anticipates such a response, the novel was launched with a "karaoke extravaganza" at the Gladstone Hotel.
With this compulsively readable, intelligent, witty and sad novel, Robertson deserves to achieve mainstream fame. At the risk of emulating Mary, who attempts to inspire Hank to lose weight by buying him a stationary bike and a scale for his birthday, I might suggest that, if you happen to know a university-educated, underemployed thirty-five-year-old whose idea of a productive afternoon is reorganizing his record collection, this book would make an excellent gift.

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