Friday, March 16, 2012

The Ravine by Paul Quarrington

I have read one of Quarrington's books before and rather enjoyed it; sadly it was not set in Toronto (it was Home Game for those looking for a recommendation for a tragicomic novel about a baseball game between a strange religious cult and a group of circus freaks, as I so often am). While The Ravine had some of the same stylistic elements, it reminded more vividly of Ghosted; the meta writing-about-the-process-of-writing, the post-chapter ambiguous dialogues, the protagonist: in both novels, a male writer with substance abuse problems who is trying to come to terms with a past incident in which he seriously fucked up someone he cared about.

Quarrington does it better, but only slightly. The Ravine deals with a middle-aged TV writer, Phil, who decides to write a novel, which both is and isn't this one. He has pinpointed the moment when his life started to go down the tubes, and it is an incident from his childhood in which he, his brother and their childhood friend Norman went into a ravine and came out damaged. Phil has never really climbed out of the ravine in the intervening years.

(Incidentally, the Ravine and Phil's description of the Don Mills area, where he grew up, are the only indications that this book was set in Toronto - it really could have happened anywhere).

I liked a lot of things about this book. I thought it was refreshing to have a protagonist who knew he was a fuck-up, leaving it up to the reader to sympathize, or not. I liked the way it dealt with the effect of television on a certain generation, the ones who started getting it in their homes when they were already pre-pubescent, and what that did to our cultural environment. I couldn't relate directly of course, but Phil's memory of getting the television and the change it made it his life certainly brought me back to being that same age and getting the internet in our house. It makes a big difference, the time in which these changes come into your life. I also loved the theme of high art vs. low art, and whether the novel is a sacred thing that is damaged when a TV writer like Phil starts on one. 

That said, overall I didn't find the story super compelling; it's hard to I guess, when you're not sure if you even like the main character. The descriptions of the two main women in his life - Rainie and Ronnie, if you can believe it - left a lot to be desired. Milligan, the star of Phil's western-themed TV show, and Bellamy, the makeup girl Phil has an affair with, were both lazily created stereotype bundles that I didn't care about AT ALL. And the climactic conversation with Norman was a bit trite.

I think Quarrington gave himself a lot to work with here, but somehow fumbled on the payoff. I wanted to be more interested in the twists and hooks - for a character whose love of Rod Serling drives a lot of the plot, I feel like there should have been a more compelling surprise, and a better use of dramatic irony. This book wasn't everything it could have been.

Three towers out of five.

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