— November, 2008
The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business, World of Wonders, The Manticore
— Robertson Davies
Considering my resolution to write more about great Canadian books—CanLit 101—I decided to revisit some old favorites. (That would be “favourites,” to old-guard Canadians, who cling to outdated anglicisms, which, orthographically, are actually gallicisms—it’s the French who spell things with extra “u’s” all over the place. And so goes our national identity crisis. But let’s all move on.)
Robertson Davies would certainly rank in my top handful of Canadian authors, and high on any international list, too. I first read these three novels thirty years ago, and in memory—looking at their faded spines on my bookshelves—their titles rang with an echo of deep enchantment.
That’s how I remembered those books, and that’s how they feel now, too. Reading them again was as enjoyable, as absorbing, and as impressive, as the first time, but was enhanced by a greater level of understanding from the reader. Elsewhere, Robertson Davies offered a perfect quote for that experience:
A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity, and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon, and by moonlight.
(So I guess I have to read an awful lot of books at least one more time—and many more twice. Ah, life.)
Robertson Davies (1913-1995) followed a peerless career arc for a twentieth-century writer: journalist, actor, playwright, professor—from cub reporter to romantic bohemian to respected academic. His fiction writing drew upon all of those backgrounds and characters, as well as inventive and well-researched plot elements describing the worlds of professional illusionists, art history, carnie life, Shakespearean theater, and Jungian psychology.
Later in life, Davies became close friends with American author John Irving. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, written around that time, Irving even deliberately patterned an incident after a key scene in the opening of Davies’s Fifth Business—an errant snowball launching a web of consequences that wove through much of the plot.
The two authors’ work shared many inner qualities, too: throughly modern concerns, themes, and settings framed in classic dramatic techniques of form, narrative, and description. Both are firmly in the show-don’t-tell school, with all that embraces. Likewise, their novels’ plots are driven forward—the reader driven forward—by means of intriguing mysteries, outsize characters, and recurring, sometimes bizarre, symbols and motifs. There is more than a breath of Dickens in their voices, as well as, say, Balzac, George Eliot, Trollope, and Thackeray, but they remain entirely “of their time” in the words those voices speak, and the lives their characters live. Their realism strains toward the mythical, to be sure, but the center holds.
Humor is also a favored device for both authors—sometimes wry, sometimes dark, sometimes farcical—to “leaven their malice,” as it were. Leaven of Malice was a work of broad comedy by Davies, the first volume of his earlier Salterton Trilogy (with A Mixture of Frailties and Tempest Tost), and I remember it being laugh-out-loud funny. In the Deptford Trilogy, the tone is more subtle, darker. As ever, though, his prose is masterly, measured and sculpted, and rereading these three novels in succession after all these years was pure pleasure.
A character in a later Davies novel was described in a quote which has come to mirror the author himself:
He was a genius—that is to say, a man who does superlatively and without obvious effort something that most people cannot do by the uttermost exertion of their abilities.
Barney’s Version—Mordecai Richler
This novel was also plucked from my bookshelves as a “reconsideration” of an old Canadian favorite. Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) was, in some ways, the “anti-Davies”—no blue-blood, Upper Canada, WASP academic, Richler was a rumpled barroom intellectual from a rough Jewish neighborhood in Montreal that was tightly circumscribed—from within and without. Richler made his name by writing about that background in novels like St. Urbain’s Horseman and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (the 1974 film version starring a young Richard Dreyfuss and Randy Quaid), and in many ways, though Richler lived abroad in Paris and London, he always returned to that place—in his fiction and his life.
His acerbic, jocular non-fiction, particularly on the subject of Quebec separatism (such as the book-length Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!), caused significant controversy in Quebec and in the wider world, with shrill accusations of “racism” against Richler, and “antisemitism” against his detractors.
That cantankerous, mordantly clear-sighted Richler is present in Barney’s Version, which is at least a little self-referential, if not autobiographical—a 67-year-old crusty, well-to-do Jewish anglophone living in Montreal—and the story playfully cameos some characters from the early novels. But there’s much more at work here than a fictionalized autobiography, or a late-stage recycling of youthful success.
Barney’s Version is a deceptively complicated novel, structured with great care and craft. The story plays out as a series of disoriented, disconnected vignettes cutting back through the haphazard, sometimes hazy memories of Barney Panofsky, an aging, alcoholic, acid-witted former television producer (his company named Totally Unnecessary Productions). He worries about his fading memory and his beloved Montreal Canadiens hockey team, and obsessively gnaws at injustices of the past—a lost love, a bitter rival, an unsolved mystery and the lingering taint of its scandal. As an “unreliable narrator,” or “unreliable autobiographer” (tautology?), Barney’s errors of fact are corrected posthumously, and punctiliously, through footnotes by his son, Michael. These are often humorously misguided, meaningless, and/or petty, and reveal more about the fictional annotator than about the fictional autobiographer.
Barney’s Version is a truly brilliant novel, sparkling with irresistible characters, delightful dialogue (and monologues), and deftly interwoven plot—both funny and sad—and the final revelation of the answer to the nagging mystery at the heart of Barney’s life, and its subtle portents, all demonstrate a master at the height of his powers.
The novel won the Giller Prize, a Canadian literary award, in 1997, following Margaret Atwood the previous year, and preceding Alice Munro the next—somehow that juxtaposition helps to illuminate Mordecai Richler’s strange and interesting place in Canadian letters. However, no question, he’s one of the greats.
Deer Hunting with Jesus—Joe Bageant
Jumping from Canada to Appalachia seems like a wide stretch—or maybe not—but part of what Joe Bageant uncovers in this book is the common roots of a certain region of the United States and certain parts of Canada—the Maritimes and rural Ontario, historically. The Scots-Irish refugees, half-starved and desperate but hard-working and resourceful, who settled those regions brought little with them materially, but carried a heavy social and genetic legacy that lingers everywhere they settled, though in widely different ways.
Joe Bageant is a journalist who grew up in Virginia, near the West Virginia state line, and the people of that impoverished backwater—though barely ninety miles from Washington, D.C.—are his subject. He started there, traveled far, and returned, able to see what he had escaped with a clear, but compassionate eye.
The book’s subtitle is “Dispatches from America’s Class War,” and the class he champions is sometimes called “the white working poor”—other times less flattering names, like “hillbilly,” “redneck,” and “white trash.” The book is an attempt to help Bageant’s “fellow progressives” better understand “the great beery, NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks.”
I have traveled a great deal in the area Joe Bageant writes about, all over its back roads and small towns—winding rural two-lanes and dots on the map with characteristic names like Fawcett Gap, Reynolds Store, Lebanon Church, and Star Tannery—and though the scenery is beautiful and the people relatively friendly, I still always wondered about the way they lived, and their beliefs: “Why are they like that?”
That’s the question Bageant sets out to answer, in a neighborly, humorous, yet fiercely objective tone. He describes his neighbors with affection, but without sentimentality—liking many of them well enough as individuals, even while bewailing their ignorance and gullibility, their knee-jerk politics and knees-bent evangelical religion (his own brother is a pastor who claims to cast out demons), and their seeming pride at never having read a book. In the end, it’s about compassion, and he can only wish these people had better lives than long hours at soul-destroying jobs with paltry wages and no recourse in ill health or old age—and that they didn’t continue to vote for the very people who denied them those opportunities.
Two other dots on the local map, in nearby West Virginia, evoke their stories: “Rough Run,” and “Needmore.”
When I closed the covers of this fascinating and endearing portrait, the words came into my head, “This is an important book.”
Greasy Rider—Greg Melville
In its way, this too is “an important book.”
The subtitle, “Two dudes, one fry-oil-powered car, and a cross-country search for a greener future,” hints at the serio-comic tone of the story. The author converts an old Mercedes diesel station wagon to run on used frying oil (theoretically available free from restaurant Dumpsters), then sets out to drive from his Vermont home to California without using more than one tankful of petroleum fuel. He is accompanied by his helpful-but-irritating friend, Iggy, and in the classic tradition of mismatched road buddies, their less-than-idyllic relationship is entertaining, and often hilarious (to the reader, if not always to the author—though he recounts their profane exchanges with winning euphemism).
Along the way, Melville also sets out to explore the larger world of “alternative energy,” wind power, ethanol, “green” homes and businesses, and geothermal heating. So the book is part picaresque road story (always a hit with this reader!) and part serious investigation of energy issues—the way it really is, without the wishful thinking, or simply wrong thinking, that is so often expended on these topics.
(Incidentally, thank you to my New Hampshire bookshop connection, who sent me a pre-publication copy of this book, and has sent me many other interesting titles, every time I pass through that region.
The Joe Bageant book was also a gift from an admirer—a signed copy, too!—and my thanks for that as well. I don’t always send all the “thank you” cards I would like to, so I hope these reviews show how much such gifts are appreciated.)