- David Eddie (Author)
Chump Change. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Herb Curtis (Author)
The Silent Partner. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lawrence Mathews
Two first-person narratives featuring would-be writers, one set in hipper-than-thou Toronto,the other in back-of-beyond New Brunswick: what a set-up for a reviewer to deliver a few bromides about the margin and the centre, the raw and the cooked, etc., etc.
David Eddie is Toronto; Herb Curtis is Silver Rapids, N.B.
Flip open Chump Change, and there’s a photograph of Eddie, sitting on what appears to be a storefront window ledge somewhere in the mildly mean streets of Ð¢.Ðž. Inevitably, he’s wearing shades (just like John Haslett Cuff!). The copy below the photo tells us about his cosmopolitan background and provides specific facts that prepare us to make connections between author and protagonist: the job at Newsweek, the move from the U.S. to Toronto, the stint as newswriter at a national TV network. David Eddie’s protagonist’s name is David . .. Henry.
The Silent Partner features no photograph of Herb Curtis.
The dedication page of Chump Change includes a statement of Eddie’s gratitude to the unnamed woman who "became my wife," followed by a couple of paragraphs in which several figures in the Toronto publishing world are mentioned, the best known of whom is Linda Frum; the author refers affectionately to himself as a "giant, lumbering, 225-lb waif."
The dedication page of The Silent Partner reads "For Stephanie."
Turn to the back cover of Chump Change, and you’ll find blurbs by Paul Quarrington and by Douglas Cooper, who says that Eddie is "in the tradition of Kingsley and Martin Amis."
Turn to the back cover of The Silent Partner, and you’ll find an unidentified reviewer (from Canadian Book Review Annual) placing Curtis in "the Stephen Leacock tradition."
David Eddie was born in Boston; Herb Curtis is from the Miramichi.
Two solitudes. Robin Mathews, thou should’st be living at this hour!
For context, consider the comments of Curtis’s fellow New Brunswicker, David Adams Richards, who in a 1986 interview talked about "what Canadians have come to look upon as being the true meaning of regionalism, which is that you write about a certain place which is interesting in a general way but isn’t real literature." One of the features of such writing, he adds, is that "the characters are oddities or they’re not people you’re going to be able to empathize with."
For our purposes, the interesting thing about Richards’s remarks is that they don’t apply to The Silent Partner, but they do accurately describe Chump Change. Eddie has written a "regional" novel in the pejorative sense: the region happens to be Toronto. Curtis, on the other hand, has made a modest contribution to "real literature."
Chump Changetrades very heavily on the local colour of Toronto, specifically its literary and broadcasting subcultures—their institutions (a magazine called This Land of Ours, a literary pub called "The Burnished Monocle," the coyly-named "Cosmodemonic Broadcasting Corporation") and their inhabitants (most of whom are, in Richards’s words, "not people you’re going to be able to empathize with"). No doubt readers plugged into these subcultures will recognize all sorts of arcane references; the rest of us, of course, just don’t care. What satire there is doesn’t rise above the level of office gossip. (Guess what? Some people at the CBC have big egos!)
But the major problem is David Henry, Eddie’s protagonist. Here Douglas Cooper’s blurb-invocation of the Amises is pertinent. Martin Amis’s major comic jerk-figures (such as John Self of Money and Keith Talent of London Fields) are drawn in such a way that there is no question of authorial approval of, let alone identification with, the character. But Eddie establishes no distance at all between himself and Henry; he seems oddly unaware that Henry is neither amusing nor likeable.
Here, for example, is a tone-setting passage from early in the novel. As Henry, a white-knuckle flyer, waits for a take-off in bad weather, he addresses this imaginary speech to a complacent fellow passenger:
That’s right, Mr. Spreadsheet, I think, clutching my armrests. You just keep adding up your little rows and columns of figures. I’ll see you in Hell in about ten minutes, and as we’re both being fucked up the ass on a bed of nails by a three-headed demon with a red-hot corkscrew for a dick, you can reflect eternally upon how you wasted your life adding and subtracting.
Out of context, it may appear that Henry is being satirized for his dim-witted vulgarity. In context, it is clear that both Henry and Eddie think that the speech exemplifies witty verbal invention. Eddie, at least, should have known better.
And that, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Chump Change. At its core there is an arrogant naivete akin to that associated with inferior regional writing. The author’s sense of self-importance is allowed to override the requirements of art. Simply to document the existence of Henry and his world is not to make what Richards (and most other readers) would call "real literature."
For that, we must turn to the self-effacement of The Silent Partner. Its narrator, Corry Quinn, is eighteen, lives in rural New Brunswick, and has a major (and metaphorically resonant) physical problem; he can’t speak, at least not intelligibly. Half of his tongue is missing, the result of a childhood accident involving—quintessential Canadian horror story!—a "thirty-below-zero railroad spike." So he must write to communicate effectively, the premise for this narrative of the crucial years of his adolescence.
It would be easy to call The Silent Partner "deceptively simple," but in fact it’s closer to guileless simplicity—not, one might argue, such a bad thing. Unlike Chump Change, Curtis’s novel focuses on emotions and relationships: not in any portentous or sentimental way, but taking for granted their primary importance in people’s lives. The Silent Partner takes its place without fanfare among our culture’s myriad coming-of-age stories. From the harshest of academic perspectives, it adds nothing new to this tradition. But it does create a credible world and characters you can "empathize with"—and, thereby, a satisfying reading experience.
Corry lives with his uncle "Kid" Lauder, a forty-five-year-old ponytailed ex-hippie. Uncle Kid appears to be one of life’s losers. He makes a haphazard living in the local sport-fishing industry; he smokes a lot of dope, drinks too much, and has no steady woman—though, in Corry’s loyal opinion, "Women love him. He’s so easy-going, so wise." It gradually becomes apparent that his commitment to Corry has become the emotional centre of Uncle Kid’s life (Corry’s mother is dead, his father in Toronto) and that their relationship has saved him from sinking into the Miramichi equivalent of the Slough of Despond.
Corry’s other major relationship is with Alice, his first girlfriend. Having been humiliated by a more attractive girl, he at first regards Alice as a poor consolation prize. But over time he learns not to focus on her physical shortcomings ("about five feet tall. . . about a hundred and forty pounds. .. very long gums and very short teeth") but instead to appreciate the strength and gentleness of her character— as well as her sexuality. It comes as no surprise that he falls in love and she decides to leave (for Alberta, thank God, not Toronto). Corry is saddened but not defeated, having come to understandhis own capacity for commitment.
The Silent Partner is not a perfect novel. The pace is too leisurely, there is too much description of the minutiae of fishing, there is a superfluous subplot about a scientist’s search for the legendary eastern cougar, and there is an implausible archly symbolic section near the end when Corry encounters a mysterious female painter in an otherwise-deserted community. But Corry tells his tale with a combination of matter-of-factness, observational skill, and delicacy of feeling that makes us care about what happens to him. He and Alice and Uncle Kid are alive, and stay alive after the book has been put aside—whether the reader has ever been to the Miramichi or not.
At one point, worrying about his uncle, Corry asks a question relevant to the issues raised by this review: "Drunk, Uncle Kid sometimes sang ’Jumping Jack Flash is a gas’ all night. . .. Who would want to carry ’Jumping Jack Flash’ around in his or her heart?" If the answer is that we do, then David Eddie is our man; Chump Change, with its combination of hype,in-your-face narcissism, and lack of real content, is the literary incarnation of that mentality. If the answer is that we don’t, the Herb Curtises of this country, whatever their "region," have something more valuable to offer.
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Books reviewed: Miss You Like Crazy by Eliza Clark and Bite the Stars by Eliza Clark
- Things as They Were? by Julie Beddoes
Books reviewed: The Englishman's Bay by Guy Vanderhaeghe
- In Search of Sanctuary by Gordon Bölling
Books reviewed: Cities of Refuge by Michael Helm and Every Lost Country by Steven Heighton
- Embranchements by Farah Leplat
Books reviewed: La cathédrale sur l'océan by Vittorio Frigerio
- Canaries in the Coalmine by David Leahy
Books reviewed: Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature by Herb Wyile
MLA: Mathews, Lawrence. Two Solitudes. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 132 - 134)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.