Sunday, March 18, 2012

Canadian book challenge - 3rd post

I'm not entirely sure why Bissoondath's The Innocence of Age came to the top of my reading list once I decided to start reading Can. lit. again.  Perhaps it was literally at the top of a stack of  books by Canadian authors that I had owned for a long time (probably almost 15 years ago when I was in grad school at U Toronto) but not read.  A couple of years ago, I finally got to around to the previous top of the stack (My Present Age by Guy Vanderhaeghe), and I thought it was incredible (more or less a Canadian version of A Confederacy of Dunces, though apparently both were written quite independently of each other).  I won't review that here, though if I reread it in the future, I will do so.  I guess I was hoping the Bissoondath book would live up to the other one, though in fact I felt it started strong but ended badly.

Anyway, I knew I wanted to read a book or two by Robert Kroetsch (just to get back into the swing of things up in Canada, not because I was aware of the challenge).  When I mentioned this to a friend of mine who teaches Canadian lit., she said that he had died recently in a car accident.  I was really sorry to hear this, of course, and decided I should go ahead and read through all of Kroetsch's novels (though possibly skipping the first one which is not much at all like his later fiction -- it seems his attempt to make his way in the literary world of the east of the early 1960s before he returned to his roots and more or less found his calling as the postmodern bard of the West).

So to get to the actual review, The Words of My Roaring is the first novel in this more overtly mythic style where Kroetsch sort of draws on folk tales (the exaggerations of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill) as well as the outsized characters who came West in search of "freedom."  These characters are found in several of Kroetsch's novels, and he also often sets up the dichotomy of East vs. West, though subverting it when necessary (or if it makes the tale more amusing).  The most extended meditation on East vs. West comes in Gone Indian, which I hope to discuss next week.

The Words of My Roaring takes place over a roughly 10 day period prior to a provincial election in a small Western Canadian town.  The narrator, the town undertaker, Johnnie Backstrom, has been convinced to run for office against the incumbent of many years, Doc Murdoch.  Doc Murdoch is very popular and well respected, and Johnnie often feels overmatched and often considers dropping out of the race.  Indeed, Johnnie looks up to Doc as a father figure (Johnnie was literally the first baby that Doc delivered), and there are a few hints that Doc might have had a closer than usual friendship with Johnnie's mother.  However, Johnnie does have a certain flair for oration and can be wound up to make all kinds of promises, including the promise that it will rain (not that HE will make it rain) before the election.  Given that the town is suffering from a terrible drought (shades of the Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930s), he begins to get crowds coming to his rallies after this announcement.

In general, Backstrom is a very flawed figure -- basically well-meaning but easily led astray, violating his pledge not to drink, spending money that his family desperately needs, and finally falling into a torrid affair with Doc's daughter (she nearly convinces him to pull out of the race as well, though ultimately Doc himself convinces Johnnie that he would rather lose a well-fought race than be awarded the position by default).  All through this, Johnnie tries to balance his responsibilities to his job (though there aren't many people who are dying who can afford a fancy funeral), to fixing up his car and to paying some attention to his very pregnant wife!  I find Kroetsch kind of drawing on the famous literary confessions of the past (most notably St. Augustine's and Rousseau's) and perhaps commenting how even the worst heel can come across as justified if he is the one writing out the account.  In general, male shortcomings are clearly on display in this book, and not only Johnnie's...


Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that on the day of the election the skies open up and it pours.  It is unclear whether this means the young man will have his sins washed away.  It is also unclear whether this will sway the election to him (or if he will ultimately withdraw in favour of the good doctor because he did not deserve this bit of good luck).  The election results are not disclosed by the end of the book.

There is actually a tiny shout out to Words of My Roaring in Kroetsch's next novel (The Studhorse Man) when Hazard Lepage and one of his companions park a "borrowed" car behind the funeral home operated by Jack Backstrom MLA, meaning first, that they are all in the same corner of the West, and second, that the undertaker did succeed in being elected to Parliament, though not necessarily at the end of that book but a subsequent contest. 

This is review 3/13.  I've actually done quite well in going through Kroetsch's novels, with only The Puppeteer and The Man from the Creeks left to go, unless I decide I really ought to read But We Are Exiles also.

While I was in the midst of this in tribute, Vaclav Havel passed away, then very shortly afterward, his former colleague Josef Škvorecký also died.  Skvorecky is a tricky case, since he certainly lived much of his life in Toronto, but his work was all published in Czech.  One book which to me definitely is Canadian literature is The Engineer of Human Souls (where the main character is a professor at UToronto); I hope to get to this novel during this challenge (or the subsequent one).  I'll probably try to read through most of Skvorecky's other novels in 2012-13, though only occasionally counting his work towards the challenge total.

I'd like to read or reread a few other Toronto novels, including Morley Callaghan's A Fine and Private Place, Atwood's Cat's Eye and Findley's Headhunter.  If I have time, I will then pick up on some Montreal works: Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute, Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Blais's St. Lawrence Blues (read this many, many years ago and could definitely get more out of it the second time around) and perhaps the most intriguing: How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany LaFerriere.  If there is any time at all left over, I am also seriously considering Hill's The Book of Negroes, Urquhart's The Stone Carvers, and MacLennan's Barometer Rising (with Two Solitudes and the Watch That Ends the Night for subsequent challenges).  That should definitely keep me busy through the end of June!

Words of My Roaring

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