Witty and Environmentally Attuned

Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy

With a plot indebted to the traditional picaresque and William Shakespeare, complemented by contemporary environmental topicality and a protagonist akin to Barney Panofsky, Water Proof is both a romp and a reckoning.


Bushkowsky’s dexterous employment of the picaresque hallmarks—an episodic structure, strong satire of societal mores, and a roguish narrator/protagonist who is simultaneously affable and contemptible—serves both comic and serious ends. Andy is a fifty-something narcissistic Vancouver filmmaker, successful at making commercials but aspiring to more aesthetic contributions. The philanderer is also a reluctant kayaker (to appease his wife, Anna, who is battling cancer), and he is propelled to action because of two incidents for which he has, in varying degrees, moral culpability.


The novel’s opening scene describes a kayaking and scouting expedition to Cortes Island in Desolation Sound during which Anna’s best friend, Sarah, disappears. Andy furtively pockets Sarah’s camera’s memory stick—containing incriminating visuals of the pair in flagrante delicto— but he is spied. Bed-and-breakfast proprietor and fellow kayaker Holly drugs him and steals the memory stick, intent on blackmail. Sarah is never found.


When a self-driving car gone awry injures a child during a commercial shoot, Andy and his business partner, Will, scheme to avoid the possible financial repercussions of a lawsuit. But actor Gili, Andy’s paramour, is the voice of conscience, and although the film company is found only ten per cent liable, guilt lingers.


Like Douglas Coupland’s Generation A, Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle, and Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, Water Proof posits Canada’s far-left coast as a last resort from the polluted-beyond-redemption world. After a year of plotting an autobiographical feature film and a response to the blackmailing, Andy and Will lead a crew back to Cortes Island. Bushkowsky sets up the circuitous return as epic, as the characters experience a transformative encounter with dolphins and orcas, find the island’s Internet reception temporarily inoperative, among other plot details.


The island of Water Proof proves, however, both otherworldly and all-too-much of this world. The backdrop of unparalleled beauty and unrestricted freedom and experimentation, with plenty at hand to induce psychedelic experiences, is of thin veneer. Ensconced in Holly’s lodge and a pseudo-yoga centre, the cast of flaky characters is capable of worldly machinations. Fleeting but recurring images of oil tankers loom over the outwardly idyllic setting like the Grim Reaper. It is, after all, Desolation Sound.


Yet, in true comedic and picaresque fashion, Andy is rescued and temporarily, if superficially and partially, redeemed; at least the seeds of self-awareness seem planted.


On several levels, Water Proof calls out for filmic adaptation. When initially laying out the setting, Bushkowsky suggests a cello soundtrack and a preferred camera; the light on Anna’s headlamp in the couple’s closing confrontation is likened to a spotlight. Film canon referencing (from Waterworld to Chinatown) abounds. More to the point, Bushkowsky, who foregrounds manifold cinematic tropes, is a picture-perfect parodist of the West Coast zeitgeist.


Spanning the years 1832 to 1853 and flitting through England, a Pacific island, and Singapore, with a detailed months-long return journey, Last Hummingbird West of Chile is in equal measures romance, adventure, and critique of Western society’s classism, sexism, racism, and anthropocentrism. The novel invites reading as an updated epic, incorporating eloquent language characteristic of nineteenth-century fiction with twenty-first-century hindsight and ethical sensibilities.


Born in bizarre circumstances, twins Catherine and Andrew are raised in wealth and unhappiness by the ruthless Earl of Amberley and their withdrawn mother. Mutual admiration and the care of kindly servants provide some solace, but familial dysfunction causes each to end their teens with momentous decisions: Catherine enters a mediocre marriage with fortune seeker Gerald Egerton and Andrew pursues an honest life at sea.


Quester Andrew, rescued from a shipwreck, alights on an island where he finds love with Jaimia and friendship with the hummingbird Zephyrax, whom the couple houses in an open-door cage. When Andrew’s life is endangered, the trio flees to Singapore, where pregnant Jaimia succumbs to a disease carried by Europeans. Fate puts Andrew in the company of Razak (who had been hired to kill Andrew but got the wrong man) and a trio of quasi-nuns—Marceline, Eulalie, and Manon (with whom romance ensues). When our hero learns of the death of the Earl, he decides to return home. With animals in tow, the human quintet travel—with a long layover in Suez—to Cairo, Alexandria, and Venice, where Eulalie is murdered in another botched attempt on Andrew’s life. Andrew and entourage continue through Italy, Switzerland, and France, with London as terminus.


Concurrent with Andrew’s adventures is the plotting of duplicitous Egerton, who succeeds in having the Earl killed but, thanks to hapless hiring and shrewd servants, fails to eliminate Andrew, his rival for the family fortune.


Ruddock unveils the plot through multiple points of view—human, animal (especially that of Zephyrax), and arboreal. Of course, this panoramic perspective underscores the subjective nature of perception (when, for example, an attempted murder is foiled, or a scorpion is compelled to bite a nun and then skewered by Zephyrax in retaliation). Anthropomorphizing and ascribing narrative and plot functions to animals also endears them to readers, making us privy to animals’ feelings and motivations as only fiction can. For example, Ubaid, a donkey, evokes much readerly empathy as he narrates his function as beast of burden. The cumulative narrative perspective also becomes a universal consciousness, allotting equal significance to all earth’s fragile inhabitants.


The actions of those of lower social or species order result in all ending well for the twins in London. Worldly-wise servants, wives-of, and disinterested observers prove astute judges and juries, discerning the character of their social “betters,” ascribing guilt, meting out justice, and protecting the innocent. In Nicholas Ruddock’s expansive world, the last word belongs to Zephyrax, who tops off his encapsulation of the adventure by informing readers that Andrew has recounted events to Catherine, with the hummingbird in the role of his saviour.

This review “Witty and Environmentally Attuned” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 May. 2022. Web.

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