I pulled André Alexis’ Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa (1994) off my shelf when Fifteen Dogs was nominated for the Toronto Book Award (since then, FD has also been nominated for the Giller Prize and the Rogers’ Writers’ Trust Fiction Award). There aren’t any notable four-legged characters, but the collection is fascinating.
In speaking of his dreams, the narrator in “Horse” says: “‘I would like to say: ‘I understand these things. They mean…’.
In some ways, that is how I feel about these stories. I’ve been raised on conventional storytelling, like the CanLit classic The Mountain and the Valley, which another character in the collection finds uninteresting: “Typical Canadian fare.”
The stories in André Alexis’ debut collection are not typical. They are disorienting and unsettling, they seem to defy understanding.
There is a spiritual side to this questioning, from the appearance of the soucoyant in the opening cycle of stories (titled “Michael”) to the more overt discussions in the final story:
— Was that about love or about Ottawa? asked Mr. Lemoine.
— Both, answered Mr. Davis
— More about God, though, said Helen. (“My Anabasis”)
Where are the sources of power in this world and how do we, as individuals, interact with them? What does coincidence mean — when the lives of a number of people who each claim an address in Ottawa beginning with 128 intersect, or when you receive a letter addressed to you from someone living in the house you last lived in — or, does it mean anything? How do we grapple with forces of darkness and where do we locate our light when it is nearly extinguished?
“The entire city was different. The lights were brighter, the shadows darker. The Rideau was black and smooth as noxious gelatin. The pavement was grey, porous as bread.”
This Ottawa? It has undiscovered layers. If you, too, are more accustomed to traditional styles, you might enjoy the classics-play which simmers beneath this collection. But even if you don’t care to play with the allusions and echoes, you might want to play tourist in this territory and allow its landscape to alter your perspective of the everyday.
Landscape is a very important element in Megs Beach’s Go Home Lake, both literally and psychologically. Like Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, this book is summer-soaked, capturing the Ontario cottage season perfectly in ink. (There is another reason why this book would make a great reading companion for Go Home Lake, but that would reveal some key elements of its story.)
“By the middle of the summer the lake was warm and the weather was hot. But I hardly noticed. Each day folded into another without seams or rends. The sun and rain rolled over the intermittent night.”
Time is altered there. And, yet, from an adult perspective, looking back on those years, Megs Beach is writing about a very distinct time: between Expo ’67 and Watergate. (Similarly the prose varies from a near-poetic-and-take-your-time style to a clean-and-precise-summary style.)
Penny and her brothers (James, Kieffer and Buck) inhabited a time when sunny days were spent outdoors exploring and playing and rainy days were spent indoors with Tales of the Crypt, Spiderman and Richie Rich comics. Tang in the fridge, racks of T-shirts with Peanuts characters in service centres, and Bobby Hull all the talk on Hockey Night in Canada: many readers will relate to these scenes.
In between summers, another kind of life exists. “We went back to the city and went to school and weekly lessons and visited friends. We did all those incidental things that constituted a reasonable facsimile of life between summers. The Perfect Suburban Life.”
But the idea of perfection is as changeable as lakeside-weather, depending on the onlooker’s perspective. And a child’s understanding of “normal” alters as she gains experiences.
For instance, the road-trips to the cottage were strained in ways which were ordinary to Penny’s young mind, but as an adult she views these elements differently, as with the noise Penny’s mother made in response to Penny’s father’s driving.
“She tended to emit this low, eerie sort of noise. Had it not continued from the point at which we left the driveway to the point at which we arrived, I might have been distressed by such a strangled, desperate sound. But as it was, she made it continuously on every long car trip, so I came to believe it was normal, almost comforting, and very likely useful in warding off deer that might wander onto the road.”
In fact, not only does young-Penny accept this behaviour unthinkingly, but she extrapolates to create another reason for it which is rooted in the world beyond her own family.
This is true, too, in regards to other behaviours in Penny’s family which are gradually revealed as these summers unfold.
In filing my notes for this novel, they fell into place beside Judy Fong Bates’ Midnight at the Dragon Cafe, next to these lines from it: “On the surface of things we were still the same family, carrying on as if nothing had happened. Below, there was a deep and painful wound.”
From summer to summer, Penny’s family carried on, and it is only as an adult that Penny finally acknowledgs the deep and painful wounds of her past. Go Home Lake is as much about travelling back into memory as it about travelling back to the cottage each summer.
Would you believe that Bruce McDougall’s The Last Hockey Game (2014) is the only book about hockey I’ve read, other than Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater?
Had it not been listed for this year’s Toronto Book Award and had I not been so recently reminded of how often I enjoy books published by Goose Lane (most recently Pauline Holdstock’s The Hunter and the Wild Girl), Roch Carrier would probably still stand alone. (I have been sorely tempted by Paul Quarrington’s King Leary.)
Did it make me feel more “Canadian”? Yes. Did I check out the framed photographs and memorabilia in the local pub the next time I visited? Yes. Will I ever attend a game? Probably not. But, if I could travel back to attend the games about which Bruce McDougall writes, I would.
This book reminds me of skating in backyard rinks when I was growing up, with kids whose fathers had hockey equipment and talked about Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe. Neither of them appears prominently in this book, however, which focuses on the game played on May 2, 1967, between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens.
“Tonight the fans in Maple Leaf Gardens would groan and cheer and panic in unison, until one team on the ice won the hockey game. If the Leafs won, English Canadians would gloat about the superiority they’d felt over the downtrodden French for more than two hundred years. If the Canadiens won, they would keep alive the hope among French Canadians of restoring the pride they’d lost two centuries ago on the Plains of Abraham.”
Organized by game period, there is less play-by-play than one might expect in The Last Hockey Game. It is more concerned with creating an atmosphere and depicting the culture in which these players lived (both on and off the ice). “They make a living with their bodies, on skates. On skates, in a hockey uniform, they move with the power and menacing grace of a shark. In shoes, in Stafford Smythe’s Humber Valley basement rec room, they stand awkwardly, as if they don’t know what to do with all the strength in their limbs. ‘No one really wants to retire,’ says Horton.”
Bruce McDougall writes in a straightforward tone, with the occasional colourful passage which adds a deeper sensory experience for readers (he can, for instance, bring a bruise off the page). His style is immediately engaging, and the scenes he depicts are interesting even with no familiarity with the individuals presented there.
The fact that he can appeal to a reader largely disinterested in the sport raises the question of whether fans would enjoy the work, but the inviting and informal approach to his discussions of players and coaches and managers suggests that there would be another layer of enjoyment for those readers whose interest in these people was already established. (The impact of the game schedule and culture on the players’ marriages, for instance, wasn’t likely discussed at the time.) And even those readers who actually watched the game and know a great deal about the significant players might find that the historical information that Bruce McDougall presents, particularly in regards to the politics and the ingrained racism of the time, offers a valuable context to contemporary readers.
Now, how about you? What were you reading in September? What are you looking forward to in October?