Wednesday, June 22, 2016

9th Canadian Challenge - 19th Review - The Luck of Ginger Coffey

I think I alluded to this previously, but I had mixed feelings about Brian Moore's The Luck of Ginger Coffey.  In some ways, it reminds me of a very toned down (& perhaps a Canadian version of) Donleavy's The Ginger Man, which is incidentally one of the last books I officially abandoned.  There is far less overt misogyny in Ginger Coffey, though there is certainly a casual sexism that pervades the novel, particularly the expectation that a man's role is to be the bread-winner and that his wife should support him in all ways.  Many of the conflicts in the novel arise when Ginger falls far short of a solid provider and his wife's somewhat surprising reaction(s).


For those that are particularly sensitive to these things, there are two fist fights involving Ginger and a moment when he loses his temper under a lot of stress and slaps his daughter in the face after she acts up and taunts him to some degree.  Even in the era in which the novel was set (late 1950s), he realizes immediately that he crossed a line and tries to repair the damage he has done.  It's an unfortunate plot point, and it is very hard to read this in 2016 and not see him as a complete monster who needs anger management classes (probably indeed that would have been a good thing had this really existed in the 1950s) when that isn't the tone that Moore is going for or the message he wants to convey.  I'm sure this incident would have been omitted had the novel been written more recently and Moore would have found some other way to add to Ginger's isolation.

I don't think I can really talk in sufficient detail about the novel without even more SPOILERS.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is that Ginger decided to settle in Montreal rather than Toronto, which would have seemed to have been a better fit in terms of a wider range of job opportunities.  However, one must also keep in mind that Montreal was a very different place with a much more prominent Anglo-Canadian presence.  It actually was the centre of the Canadian banking world and had more head offices than Toronto until 1961 when the positions began to reverse.  Metropolitan Montreal was larger than Metropolitan Toronto until the mid 1970s.  Even in the mid 1960s, many people expected Montreal to remain the larger, more dynamic city.  There were multiple reasons why this didn't happen, but the rise of Quebec separatists and the imposition of French language laws were certainly a major contributor to Montreal's relative decline.  If Ginger managed to stick it out into the 1970s, he might well be thinking hard about whether he wanted to retire (if that was even financially feasible for him) in Montreal as opposed to resettling in Toronto.  But that is very far from the main concerns of the novel.

Ginger is an interesting case study of someone who chafed under the class-based restrictions of his home country, Ireland, and in particular resented being taught to respect authority and hide away his own opinions.  He came to Canada, as it was a wide-open place, where one could make one's own way.  However, it turns out that he is not a business wiz and has not been able to generate enough sales to be kept on as a representative to a handful of Irish companies.  He has quickly run through his savings, including the money he was supposed to keep aside to buy their tickets home in case all his ventures failed.  He has naturally been hiding this from his wife, as he is ashamed of his failure and yet convinced that success is just around the corner.  What's somewhat impressive is that Moore makes this character fairly sympathetic and even a bit likeable, though I would probably avoid him in real life.  Being around such people, who never quite get their plans to gel and are always looking for the Next Big Thing, is exhausting.  Plus, they start hitting you up for money.

As it happens, Ginger's main problem is that he basically has an inflated image of himself and his talents, and he doesn't like to work in places where he isn't respected, though consequently he never lasts anywhere long enough to get any seniority.  He somehow gets it into his head that his pal, Gerry, can get him a job as a reporter on the Tribune.  Why he thinks this is an ideal job (or that he would be good at it at all) is completely beyond me, but he has his heart set on it.

In the end, he manages to get a job as a proof-reader on the paper, which he interprets as a clear steppingstone on the way to becoming a reporter.  However, his salary is just not enough to pay the rent, and after they are basically kicked out of their apartment (obviously tenant protections were less in those days), his wife goes into a shelter with their daughter and finds her own job, which pays better than his proof-reading gig.  She also declares she is through with him and all his false promises (and wishful thinking that things will work out for the best).

Before you know it, Gerry starts making the moves on his wife, and Ginger basically goes through the roof.  He takes a second job to prove he can still be a meaningful provider.  Interestingly, he manages to give this new boss a useful idea, and towards the end of the novel, he is offered a much higher-level position to be Chief Assistant or some such thing.  He turns it down to focus on this hare-brained scheme of being a reporter, which of course doesn't materialize and he is fired from the paper.  In many ways, he is clearly his own worst enemy, though his pal Gerry wasn't much of a friend in the end either.  I have to say I didn't really buy all the twists and turns of the denouement where Ginger's luck finally starts to turn for the better, but I won't reveal them here.  I was also more than a little disappointed that Moore felt that the proper resolution of the love triangle was for Ginger's wife to realize she really did love him with all her heart and that she would stick by him no matter what.  Blech.  That aspect of the novel still bothers me, but perhaps the finally chastened Ginger will prove to be a better husband and certainly father going forward.

All in all, I rate this as a decent read, but one very much stuck in its era.  It certainly does not transcend the casual sexism of its time.  I didn't find myself rooting for Ginger to win his wife back, which is clearly the effect Moore was going for, but others may feel differently.

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