Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Reckoning of Boston Jim

The Reckoning of Boston Jim by Claire Mulligan (Brindle and Glass 2007)

A reckoning is a settling of accounts – the tallying of a balance sheet. It is also, in the biblical sense, an accounting of one’s life. Claire Mulligan’s first novel is the story of many such reckonings, a story of bonds, and of the quest for balance.

Boston Jim Milroy (if that is his real name) is a protagonist of Byronic proportions. He is haunted by memories which are all too vivid, and by those he cannot quite recall. His body is indelibly and mysteriously scarred, and, he believes, cursed as well. He is a former Hudson’s Bay man, and now a lone trapper subsisting at the edges of a burgeoning colony in a sort of self-imposed exile.

It is midway through the nineteenth century, and life is hard on the wild British Columbian coast. So when Boston Jim unwittingly suffers the simple kindness of Dora Hume, he becomes obsessed with the notion of recompensing her for the deed, proving "once an exchange is made it creates a bond, however tenuous."

His quest manages to land him in jail, endure a beating, and eventually drive him north along the unfinished Cariboo Wagon Road to safeguard and retrieve the bumbling, pompous, and pitiful Eugene Augustus Hume – the only suitable compensation for the woman Dora, according to Boston Jim’s reckoning.

The writing is lush and vivid in its detail. It carefully evokes a world precariously poised between old and new, civilization and savagery. It is a world in flux, and oftentimes out of balance. In fact, Boston Jim’s struggle for reckoning is but a microcosm for the larger problems of humanity, and, as such, his tragic attempt to restore that balance.

Unfortunately, a perfect reckoning is not always with our grasp. And herein lies the strength of this novel. Replete with many truisms, The Reckoning of Boston Jim doles out its justice blindly. Good guys do not always win, and bad guys do not always receive their just desserts. Instead, in Mulligan’s own words, "our world cracks into great unequal pieces."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Coureurs De Bois

Coureurs De Bois by Bruce MacDonald (Cormorant Books 2007)

Coureurs de Bois does not feel like a first novel. MacDonald’s voice is confident and self-assured. The writing grabs you by the throat in a no-holds-barred, drag down, knock out bout from the opening sentence.

Randall "Cobb" Seymour has a mission from Crow the Creator. Newly released from prison, this "monster" of a man – half Mohawk, half Ojibway – enters the world of the white man like the proverbial bull in the china shop. He quickly builds an empire out of illegal cigarette sales, running weed, prescription drugs and other scams for kicks. He has a chip on his shoulder that dates back generations.

William Tobe, a visionary economics student from the University of Ottawa, drops off the radar following graduation and resurfaces in Toronto as Cobb’s unlikely partner in crime. They are prophets, both of them, in their own way. People who can "guide and see." Together they subvert the system like 17th century coureurs de bois – the earliest venture capitalists to visit North America – turning their newly created fortune into vast tracks of Costa Rican rainforest, with the ultimate goal of selling carbon bonds in some distant dream economy.

The testosterone is thick here, so is the symbolism. Cobb realizes early in the novel that the white man has "liberated himself from the pigmentation of his skin, from his sex, his hair, his age, and his place. The white man was an idea, like money, a commodity." Cobb is his anti-thesis, "a man with the powerful and purposeful stride of a mountain cat." A man of action who is given over almost entirely to eating, drinking, and fornicating. A man in touch with his animal self. And Will, for his part, is quick to ascertain that in the modern world "there is nothing left to believe in." So the two of them set about creating their own system of beliefs based on barter and exchange, for, as they discover, "need has a power of its own."

Set in a seedy stretch of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, Coureurs de Bois is a novel where the insane speak oracular truths and a female Christ figure – complete with virgin birth – attempts to kill herself, shocked by the "absolute horror of the human condition." The characters here are full-blown and fascinating. The pacing is immaculate. The humour black, intelligent, and just as likely to reinforce a stereotype as deflect one.

It’s a shame that it doesn’t have a truckload of promotional money to propel it into the Canadian consciousness. Exceptional.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

As Good As Dead

As Good As Dead: a cautionary tale by Stan Rogal (Pedlar Press 2007)

Stan Rogal’s As Good As Dead is nothing if not entertaining. It is an absurdist romp through the world of publishing and entertainment. In the late 1990s, I had the chance to read and review two of Rogal’s earlier works of fiction, and like them, As Good As Dead has the same voyeuristic quality. That is to say that reading this novel is like passing an accident on the 401; although startling and twisted – and maybe even a bit horrific at turns – you cannot help but slow down and take a look.

Victor (Vic) Stone is a forty-five-year-old writer, of poetry mostly, who has settled into a grove that suits him. He is not wildly happy, but neither is he particularly dejected with his lot. He has a small press publisher, Vigilante Editions, that is more than willing to turn out a slim volume of poetry for him every few years, a New Age ex-wife who continues to care for him long after their split, and a bit on the side with a married mother of two. Add the occasional bottle of Jack, and things are good.

It isn’t until a Hollywood schlock-meister offers him a million dollars for the movie rights to his first, and only, novel that life gets complicated.

Vic opens his stream-of-consciousness tale with a question: how did Jack Kerouac feel the morning he woke up famous? And while we suspect Vic’s story to elucidate this point, the waters get a little muddied along the way. We do learn that people treat him differently once Hollywood comes knocking: "...I’ve made it, I’m getting out, I’ve achieved what others can only dream of, and no matter that we’re buddies and they want to be happy for me, there’s no shaking the fact that they’re stuck." Old friends turn him down for drinks.

But what he also discovers while guesting on an episode of Oprah is that "people are listening to me, actually hanging on my every word. Moreover, they are affected by the things I say." And this blind adherence to the cult of personality is what irks him most.

For Vic is a cynic (who oddly is also a "firm believer in love at first sight"), and deep down, he cannot reconcile his commercial success with his artistic integrity. People who have never read his work, and probably wouldn’t like it if they did, are now courting him for his opinions.

It is the age-old dilemma of the "indie" artist. He longs for success and approbation, but openly believes that the unwashed masses cannot possibly appreciate the intelligence of his work. So if he is suddenly embraced by the mainstream, he must have sold out and written something "unadventurous...stamped indelibly with either a Hallmark card happy face or a drippy-dippy glycerine tear, totally accessible, easily consumed and digestible, utterly forgettable and nothing to stick to the ribs or agitate the brain."

However, this is not the only rant up Vic’s sleeve. As Good As Dead is a slim, satirical narrative punctuated by "Howls" – of the Ginsbergian persuasion. Vic sounds off on cell phones, telemarketing, the media, New Age religions, and even the word "actually." These come hot and heavy, especially in the first third of the book, and although they are humourous, their frequency can be distracting at times.

There is also the matter of the novel’s turn toward the surreal in the latter stages. Without giving away too much, following Vic’s screamingly uncomfortable appearance on Oprah, the plot moves beyond a satirical tongue-in-cheek look publishing success and becomes a rather surprising story of cat-and-mouse chases and conspiracy theories.

The final chapter does much to save the novel from this radical departure by employing a kitschy deus ex machina that works well with something the protagonist ruminated over earlier; however, you have to stay with it in order to find out where the author is going.

In the end, it’s the character of Vic that carries the day here. He’s the sort of crazy drunk you want to meet in the early stages of a party when he’s still sober enough to be witty and drunk enough to say what he shouldn’t be saying.