On the Way with Wayman
- Tom Wayman (Author)
A Vain Thing. Turnstone Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tom Wayman (Author)
Boundary Country. Thistledown Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tom Wayman (Author)
Woodstock Rising. Dundurn Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Neil Querengesser
Long recognized as an accomplished Canadian poet and shortlisted for a Governor General’s award in poetry, Tom Wayman turns his hand to prose in these three works of fiction, ranging from short pieces to a full-length novel. Although the results are sometimes uneven, Wayman has established himself as a significant figure in his recently adopted genre.
Boundary Country, his first published book of fiction, is a collection of short stories, many of which are set in British Columbia’s southern and interior regions, the geography of which is clearly familiar to Wayman and rendered with impressive verisimilitude. They include a story of an owner of a salon chain who picks up a hitchhiker with a shady past east of Osoyoos , an imaginative account of a visit by Sir Paul McCartney to a gathering of assorted Nelson citizens, and a bittersweet tale of a divorced man helping friends move a horse to winter pastures as he meditates on his failed attempt to begin a new relationship. Other stories move further afield in time and place, including an account of a family of Russian and European Jews trying to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the 1930s, and a speculative piece featuring an imaginary relative of Alfred Nobel who demonstrates to a lieutenant in the American Civil War the power of his cousin’s new invention. All the stories in this collection are notable for the authenticity of their narrators and point of view, the tone of each narrative perfectly matching its narrator’s personality.
A Vain Thing, Wayman’s second book of fiction, consists of four novellas, all of them ostensible variations on the title’s central theme of (national) vanity. Wayman’s penchant for speculative fiction, already evident in Boundary Country, is even more pronounced in this collection. The first novella, Djkarta Now, set in perhaps only a slightly imaginary future, is told from the point of view of a racist political candidate in Vancouver, leader of the Democracy Now party, a thinly disguised front for the racist Djkarta Now organization that wants to oust all recent Chinese immigrants from the province. Wayman skilfully manipulates exterior dialogue and interior monologue to eventually reveal the narrator’s true colours and his hypocrisy. The Rock Eaters tells the tale of mineral-eating, Winnebago-travelling aliens in the shape of wheat stalks who have made Earth a favourite tourist destination. The hero of this piece must risk his life to save some of these aliens when they are trapped inside a burning restaurant. Thanks to Wayman’s mastery of the point of view and setting, it is actually not too difficult to willingly suspend one’s disbelief while reading this wry satire on xenophobia. In Land under the Snow, a cross-country skier in the Okanagan falls through a mountain snowdrift into the life and customs of an old middle-earth Nordic village, meeting the love of his life and learning much about himself in the process, only to be turned in another direction just as things start to go well for him. The finest and most realistic novella is Love in the Afterlife, an acerbic look at life and love from the perspective of an emotionally insecure grant-winning Vancouverite writer who takes up with a new girlfriend and other squirrely characters in the Toronto literary scene. Whether or not this is a roman à clef, it is nevertheless lively and delightful satire, distinguished, despite the overt symbolism, by one of Wayman’s better endings.
Woodstock Rising, Wayman’s first full-length novel, is an over-the-top labour of love narrated by a young man in his twenties with the quasi-autobiographical first name of Wayman, struggling to meet his thesis supervisor’s demands for a completed product in the fourth and final year of his somewhat postponed Master’s program at UC Irvine in the politically and culturally explosive academic year of 1969-1970. But his thesis certainly isn’t the only thing he has to contend with. The lone Canadian in his group of friends and acquaintances, Wayman is attracted to several of his fellow female students, particularly Nora, with whom he eventually establishes the novel’s central romantic relationship. He is an active member of the Students for a Democratic Society, as well as a member of a small idealistic circle, including a couple of disillusioned Vietnam vets, that decides, after prolonged conversation and several shared joints, to launch a decommissioned nuclear missile, replacing its deadly payload with a jerry-built satellite broadcasting songs from the recent and wildly successful festival at Woodstock. After pulling off this rather implausible feat, much to the chagrin of the current president, Richard Milhous Nixon, they soon desire even bigger and better ways of making an anonymous name for themselves, planning a sequel to Woodstock so big and so bright that they will have to wear shades. Despite all the suspense and the realistic build-up, however, the novel’s climax and its denouement, characteristic weak points in Wayman’s fiction, are a bit of a letdown. Nevertheless, this novel is certainly worth reading. As usual, the voice of the young narrator is impeccably realized. If the narrative sometimes sprawls a bit over the book’s almost five hundred pages, it can be attributed to the narrator’s enthusiastic desire to create a detailed chronicle of his personal annus mirablis at the centre of some of the most culturally significant events in America. The pages are replete with realistic historical details of American struggles over Vietnam, class, and race, mirrored in the sectarian conflicts within the SDS. The various tribulations and triumphs of Southern California campus life in the late 1960s are vividly recreated, and abundant quotations from popular songs of the time give a compelling picture of a remarkable era. Part satire, part serious cultural chronicle, and part wish-fulfillment fantasy, Woodstock Rising is an enjoyable and insightful novel. It will resonate particularly with those readers who lived through the turbulent times of the late 1960s—especially those who missed out on the original Woodstock.
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MLA: Querengesser, Neil. On the Way with Wayman. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), Mordecai Richler. (pg. 181 - 183)
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