by Joan Barfoot
308 pages,
ISBN: 0676977006

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Running Out of Luck
by Ann Diamond

This is a dark, amoral comedy about love and mortality, and all the things in between, including those grey areas where life and death seem to merge and grow indistinguishable.
We know were the novel is set in Southern Ontario because the characters spend every waking minute subtly hating one another-except, of course, for the person they are married to, or currently having an affair with. Towards these special people, Barfoot's characters harbour feelings of possessiveness mixed with suspicion-what they call "love".
The principal colour in every scene is a dull grey-green-the colour of money, disappointment, cynicism, thwarted affection. The scenes themselves take place in sedate, recognizable places: a bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, a funeral home, a roadside, a fashionable art gallery. The homes are well furnished and tasteful, endowed with lovely gardens.
The principal emotions are, in order of frequency and novelistic significance: envy, doubt, resentment, financial dread, and vindictiveness. (Maybe financial dread is not precisely an emotion, but it might as well be in this world).
This is the landscape. It's far removed from African refugee camps, where one of the women, the thirtysomething Sophie, travelled in her youth in the hope of making the world a better place. Such a notion is, apparently, delusory, but Barfoot seems to include it for the sake of contrast. What is she contrasting? The world out there, where people starve to death, die in epidemics, get their limbs blown off by landmines, and the fertile lawns west of Toronto, where what prowls is the living dead.
Now for the plot: Nora wakes up in bed one morning to find her husband Philip has died during the night. This is unexpected. He was only 46. After touching his cold corpse, she understandably screams. This brings the two other women who share her house running to the bedroom to find out what's going on. One of them is Sophie, a plump redhead with bouncing breasts. The other is the sylph-like, enigmatic Beth.
Nora's husband, Philip, seems more likeable as a cadaver than he was when alive. A fancy furniture-builder, he drifted out of one marriage (to his ex-wife Lynn) into another with Nora, as easily as if he were changing his pants. Once good looking, and an eager lover, lately he had grown a little thick around the middle.
For the next twenty-four hours, the three women do a great deal of thinking about Philip, the man he used to be, the corpse he has become. Barfoot takes us on a tour of their emotions, limited as they are. Not all of them are grieving. Beth seems decidedly pleased.
On the second day, they handle the funeral arrangements. On the third day, they all go to the service, and then their separate ways. Nobody in this novel is as attractive as they once were. This seems to be a fact of life that preoccupies the author, to the exclusion of other pressing issues.
It's difficult to know what to make of the narration, which at times mimics the convoluted blankness of the characters' souls. I was never sure what to make of all the repetition, the attention to appearance and surfaces. I think that it's most likely a form of ironic social commentary. Barfoot definitely has an ear for inflated, pompous dialogue. Over coffee after the embalming, Hendrik, the funeral director, earnestly bares his beliefs to the grief-stricken Sophie:

"I like the idea that sometimes I can make sorrow easier to bear. You can't take grief away from anyone, but sometimes you can lift it a bit. Make it easier or more comprehensible, whatever seems required. And I like being able to acknowledge the people and the lives that I know and the ends of their stories. Respecting all the family and community and how it unfolds, in the end."

This is quite a mouthful for an undertaker, even if he is, in a way, the novel's real hero.
This is how the people in this novel speak: endlessly preaching to one another, employing complicated sentence structure, offering advice, support, assistance, and fake expressions of loyalty. Behind each others' backs, they make catty, withering remarks, for which they sometimes feel slightly guilty, but not for long.
I found it difficult at all times to know what sort of novel this is. Is it some kind of social satire? Was I wickedly amused, or bored? A bit of both, really. The trouble is that Barfoot often sounds just like the characters she is subtly ridiculing. She writes about them sympathetically, as if their privileged, yet unbearably dreary lives really matter, and their inexpressiveness actually stands for the human condition.
It turns out that the shallowest character, Beth, who happens to be the youngest, and the most beautiful and narcissistic, is also the most interesting. We learn that she murdered her own mother a few years before, using mouse bait. Later she moved in with Nora and Philip, to model for Nora, who is a painter. Nora once painted Beth dressed up in a series of scenes depicting the life of Christ. This blasphemy outraged the fundamentalist townspeople, who gathered menacingly at the property line, dumped bags of shit on the doorstep, waved placards, and made death threats. As a result, Nora became famous, or at least notorious. She has even been on TV, defending her art and her feminist theology.
Then there's Sophie, who holds two economics degrees, and who went to Africa because of her idealism. I got the sense she may be the nice one in the novel, the one who deserves to be happy. Barfoot has made her a little bit fat, or rather "voluptuous". Sophie has a conscience, even though she betrayed Nora by sleeping with her husband. Sure enough, she falls in love with the funeral director, the man who has just embalmed her ex-lover Philip.
So after all, there is a drama hovering about in the background, but it remains there, never confronted, never really worming its way into the story. It's touched upon in patches of dialogue, but mostly we hear of it through the constantly humming narrative voice, punctuated with passages that are philosophically vague, the kind of otherworldly statements that often emerge from the lips of mediums and channellers:

"And so Philip's absence begins making its differences: to air, weight, volume, and the constellations of individual, left-behind souls. Pull out one of several props and see what tumbles down. Or see what rearranges itself, compensating for unexpected imbalances-these things, like life or death in the night, can go either way."

"Either way" is right. Sometimes in a novel you just want something to happen that does not feel quite so contrived. Gamely, I kept reading, awaiting the revelation: an event that might suddenly throw new light on the plain, practical, endlessly reiterated fact of Philip's death, or the secret nature of the three women he has left behind. I was hoping to learn that he was murdered. Would it turn out, for example, that the ethereal Beth had a motive? Perhaps she had a lesbian attachment to her artist-boss Nora? Barfoot never goes there; she raises the possibility but lets it dangle. After a while, I began to wonder if I had imagined the implied homicide, the prospect of it so juicy when it first surfaced.
The Independent called Luck "harrowing and hilarious", and compared it to Six Feet Under. Apparently that reviewer also noticed the dark undercurrents and enjoyed a laugh or two. All I got was a sustained shudder.
Ironically, the final scene is reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway throwing open the shutters in gratitude and celebration of life. A year after Philip's demise, Nora has a major triumph: a successful new show of paintings using materials that incorporate his cremated ashes, and one of his charred teeth. How deliciously avant garde can a girl get?
She's still a widow, but she has discovered "the exhiliarating, terrifying, luxurious, thrilling, diving-into-darkness question . . . " I don't want to spoil the surprise at the end by revealing what it is, although personally, I didn't find it justified the 300 pages that led up to it.
For me, Luck simply ran out with an ambivalent shrug. Maybe this suggests a deeper truth: that in life nothing much happens, even when we think it does.

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