Saturday, December 19, 2009

Niceman Cometh

Erin, ON: Porcupine's Quill Press, c2008.
171 p.

Here is likely my last review of the year, and my only read for the Canadian Book Challenge this month. It was a quick and enjoyable read, by David Carpenter, fiction editor for Grain magazine (one of my favourite literary mags) among other things. This novel made it to the ReLit awards longlist this year, a great place to find small press reading suggestions. It also won the Saskatoon Book Award for this year.

This book takes us through a year in the life of Glory Sacher and her six year old son Bobby, down and out residents of Saskatoon. They've just moved in to a new apartment on the top floor of a house - and their landlady has just died. Glory is left to deal with the landlady's very creepy son Jerry, as well as her last boyfriend Ricky Bullerd, late night DJ and terminal ladies' man. Ricky is convinced that they need to get back together and with his emotional harassment and Jerry's physical harassment, Glory really needs to catch a break.

To get poor Bobby's mind off all the scary and uncertain things in his life they end up at the mall at Christmas. They go to see Santa, at which point the story lines converge -- Glory and Bobby meet James Wellington Waller, an overweight single man taking on the Santa role for some extra cash at Christmas (his day jobs of writing an 'Events' column in the local paper and writing fortunes for cookies are just not paying the bills). James is incontrovertibly a nice guy, in strong opposition to the other men in Glory's life. They are both taken with the other, though it takes a few more months for either of them to act on this attraction. Bobby's fondness for Santa (or Satan as he miswrites, humorously) doesn't hurt, either.

The male characters in this book are examined quite thoroughly - each has their own characteristics which explain their behaviour and their longings. The title hints at Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, a play replete with alcoholic, misogynistic, useless men. Ricky and Jerry certainly reflect these characteristics, but hope for a nice guy is found, even if James Wellington Waller appears at first to have some of the same useless characteristics. I wasn't crazy about the character of Glory; she seems to be a focal point of the three men's visions of themselves rather than a truly compelling person, at least in my view. But there were some nice elements of her character drawn out, especially when she is talking to her friend Jolene.

Another strong element of this story is Saskatoon itself. The routes the characters walk or drive along, the buildings referenced, the weather, the characters, all create a clear picture of the city. I felt the wind and smelled the river while I was reading, and each season of Glory's year plays its part. Here is one quote, when James Wellington Waller is feeling the winter blahs:

Perhaps the real problem was November. Blame it on November in Saskatoon. This was the first of five long months of winter. The lows had been hovering around minus thirty C for three weeks straight, but really winter had only just begun. The last withered leaf disappeared on Hallowe'en. The first big snow came on All Souls' Day. Now the wind blew through everything, even the plaster walls of James's sad old apartment. Seasonal affective disorder. It sprang not from the sudden absence of light, but from the imagination turned morbid. The foliage out on the prairie, the pussywillows out on the sloughs, the leaves on all the elms and maples lining the streets: none of these would ever return. Never, says Lear. Never. Never. Never. Never. He wasn't talking about the death of Cordelia, he was talking about November in Saskatoon, maimed and dusty survivor of the Great Depression, huddled between the prairie to the south and a fringe of parkland, clenched beneath the black uncaring cosmos like a cactus in the wind.

David Carpenter is a writer with an extensive oeuvre, and has also recently published a collection of short stories called Welcome to Canada . I'll be reading that sometime soon as well. If you want to hear him reading a section of this book, one in which James Wellington Waller first puts on the Santa suit and practises his Ho Ho Ho, you can find a link to the audio excerpt on Carpenter's website.

I am enjoying how the books I've chosen for this year's Canadian Book Challenge (my theme is books set on the Prairies) have had such a sense of place. Saskatoon is coming through clearly, even if I do wonder whether that is just because I'm from Saskatchewan. Would people still be enthralled if they'd never been to Saskatoon? If you've read any of the books I'm talking about, please share your impressions. This particular novel was full of word play, of characters just odd enough to be realistic, of a love of place, of a storyline edged with darkness yet redeemed by hope. Santa really is a nice man here, and the potential inherent in Christmas really delivers. Christmas somehow allows us to lower our barriers of cynicism, just a little, and believe in the possibility of love, of sharing, of kindness. It is the central point which this novel revolves around, both in the sense of timing and in meaning. Kindness and love triumph, in their own particular way.

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