Friday, July 19, 2013

Strange Fugitive by Morley Callaghan

I seem to be reading a lot of Camus-esque novels lately. Frankly, it isn't really my cup of tea. I don't mind an exploration of themes of social isolation and nihilism or whatever, but an unsympathetic protagonist really grates on me. I am full of empathy to the point that it greatly influences how I consume media, and I just cannot engage well in a book that doesn't give me someone to empathize with.

I think Trevor Cole did this successfully with Norman Bray - presenting an unsympathetic protagonist while still managing to engage the reader in caring about the outcome - by firstly using supporting characters that were well-drawn and sympathetic, and secondly by making the novel at least partly comic. I get a bit weary of the plodding seriousness of these "stranger" books. Guilty was at least playful in a sort of grotesque way. Strange Fugitive is not.

I wanted to lay all that out initially so you know that I have a personal objection to this type of novel that is not really indicative of how good it is or how much you might enjoy it. I guess that's true of any review though.

Strange Fugitive follows a few months in the life of a man named Harry Trotter who, after being laid off from his job at a lumber yard for fighting, teams up with a friend, Jimmie, to start a thriving bootlegging business (it's set in the 1920s). He leaves his wife and seems to spend most of his time wondering if he should go back to her, or thinking about his dead mother - and not in a nice, aww he really cared about his mom sort of way, more like a no woman could ever live up to my mummy kind of thing. Harry and Jimmie are ruthless and dishonest in their business, stealing booze shipments from other bootleggers and undercutting them as well.

Harry is a super unlikeable protagonist. He is mopey and mean. He treats women like crap. He is never content with his lot and always wants to control more, to be in charge of the whole city. And he kills a guy, and doesn't give a shit. He is not a good person and I hoped throughout the book that he would die and we could follow some other character instead.

This book might interest you if you are into learning about Toronto in the 1920s, particularly the nitty-gritty of the bootlegging scene at the time; I guess Callaghan was a newspaper reporter and was getting the inside scoop on how it all worked, so it's probably pretty accurate - and I did find the historical aspect of the novel interesting. I liked how much everyone travelled on the streetcars (for some reason I always love it when streetcars turn up in Toronto novels). Toronto enthusiasts and history buffs should probably check this out.

For the rest of us, I can't really recommend it. It's well written and the premise is interesting, but for a short novel it's a hard slog because trying to sympathize with an awful character is exhausting. Life's too short.

Two CN Towers out of five.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Alms by Cynthia Macdonald

This novel is about what it is to be good, in the charitable, altruistic sense, and how different paths to goodness play out in the real world. It should give you lots to think about in regards to privilege, charity, and whether the "white knighting" done so often by the upper classes is actually a legitimate good in the world. Though it is less explicit about it, I also believe it's a story about gender and control.

The story follows Martine, a young woman from a wealthy area of Toronto, who doesn't really fit in. She is not conventionally attractive, comes from a strange family, and never seems to be able to measure up to the standards of her impossibly blonde, upperclass contemporaries (I would hesitate to use the word "friends"), the Pines and Colterblakes. As a teenager, Martine accidentally ends up organizing a bottle drive fundraiser for a local charity, gets her picture in the paper, and never quite recovers from the rush that "doing good" gives her. The novel follows her through her pursuits to help "porepeople," but she is hampered by her actual distaste for the work and for interactions with the poor.

Martine is also troubled by a compulsive need to control her food intake, a condition that is heavily implied to be caused or at least triggered by her perpetually do-gooder father constantly feeding her stories of the world's unfortunates. She eats only ten "servings" a day and records them in a notebook. The eating disorder is a compelling device that serves as shorthand for Martine's struggle for control in her life, and fills out her motivation to be good - in every aspect of her life she struggles to fit into some impossible standard, most of all to take up less space (in every possible interpretation) - which reflects the overall condition of women in Western society.

The book isn't a feminist treatise though so much as an oddly beautiful exploration of goodness and the way the haves relate to the have-nots. How giving up money is not something that automatically makes you poor; the ever-present layers of privilege, the lack of abuse and discrimination are also factors.

The story could have been set anywhere, but it benefits from using Toronto as a backdrop because it so easily captures the particular Toronto makeup of the do-gooders and the downtrodden. As an employee of a non-profit in Toronto I could definitely relate to the scenes in Helping Hands and paticularly Martine's relationship with the clients. It also touches slightly on the neighbourhood-based identification of one's breed in the city, which probably isn't exclusive to Toronto but is certainly a big part of life here.

This book was a struggle at times, but I liked the themes and the characters (Glenys especially rang true) and the way it bucks traditional narrative devices, particularly the ending. I would read this author again.

Four CN Towers out of five.