Hard & Soft Boiled
Reviewed by Tamas Dobozy
Together, these novels offer a case study in diametrically opposite aesthetic principles. Jarman presents a lyrical runaway of a text, while Stuewe serves up a straightforward plot-driven detective story. Where Jarman moves in ever widening and diminishing spirals from the geographical hub (a patrimonial junkyard) of his (anti-) hero, Drinkwater, Stuewe moves from beginning to end in a line only crooked for a few flashbacks into McDumont’s past. Where Jarman offers a visionary grammar, such as, "I got them and I hope they’re goners meeting designer death in busted cranium where visions of créole zeppelins float and yaw past my leg in all sorts of blood," Stuewe isn’t afraid of verging on cliché: "Odd how Margot did make him feel callow—he’d been around but he’d never met anyone like this before. He felt completely tongue-tied." Where Jarman innovates a millennial picaresque—a frenzied mix of language derived from pop music, high art, commercials and street slang—Stuewe recycles the hard-boiled detective writing of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett,
delivering an antique narrative full of the jargon and stereotypes we expect from 1930s, 40s and 50s fiction in the genre.
Side by side, I couldn’t imagine two books displaying more stylistic diversity; yet, they both function superbly within the parameters they set out for themselves. Jarman sparkles with a lyrical intensity rarely if ever encountered in Canadian literature; and Drinkwater’s hilarious escapades on the farm team circuit of the NHL—as well as the insanity of Shirt is Blue and his airplane, and Neon with the Elvis Impersonator in Thailand—recognize the comic element that propels the picaresque. Stuewe deftly avoids any rambling or descriptive paragraphs, as well as inconse- quential side plots, that would retard the pace of his plot. We know what awaits us at the end of This Dark Embrace, but not exactly how we’ll get there, and Stuewe keeps the suspense at just the right pitch. The citizenship of McDumont adds an extra flavour to an otherwise stock set of characters; his observations on social realism and the reality of poverty likewise keep the novel from turning too quickly into the fairy-tale we expect from the ending. Jarman writes a novel where you linger over every page; Stuewe writes a novel where you can’t turn the pages fast enough.
Jarman’s novel will certainly interest academics working in the picaresque, pop culture or postmodern realism. Stuewe’s appeal seems targeted more towards readers of pulp fiction; it sticks too closely to the formula to indulge in the irony necessary to make for a full-blown encounter with antique detective fiction; but one senses that this wasn’t his program, anyhow. What both these novels do investigate is cultural difference, between Canada as home and memory and America as commodity and violence. Drinkwater feeds on America, tearing through its urban and non-urban spaces, his windshield a source for the various perspectives that keep him from having to define the limits of his space; meanwhile, McDumont exploits his status as outsider to worm his way between the cracks in Hollywood’s social hierarchy. Drinkwater collapses under the weight of all his options; McDumont gets the golden apple. Only one of them returns home.
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MLA: Dobozy, Tamas. Hard & Soft Boiled. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 217 - 218)
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