Meet Ed. He's grossly overweight, unhappy, unemployed and neurotically cynical. His wife Victoria is trying to divorce him, and to make matters worse, her lawyer is Ed's old college roommate, Benny, who has traded in his once-radical politics for a BMW. And then there is Marsha, an irredeemable yuppie, working on her "pecs" and her tan and searching for meaning through diet and gossip. They are all Canadian, friends of a sort, members of a '60s generation cast adrift in the hard, hard '80s. Their youthful idealism is gone, leaving a vacuum that none of them has been able to fill. The anguish of their predicament is made all the more poignant by its secondhand nature. Here's Ed remembering his college days:
"It wasn't easy having to vicariously share the guilt and agony of their war like some poor cousin.
"There was, of course, the question of Canadian complicity. But we lacked the necessary stage properties to put on a really top-notch performance. We had no draft cards to burn and there was the lingering suspicion that if we desecrated the new flag we might be taken as friends of the Canadian Legion. Back then, twelve or thirteen years ago, we didn't even have our own black problem, though we did have plenty of relatively unmilitant and unfashionable Indians. So we imported Black Panthers from Detroit to address rallies and harangue us."
With this handsomely packaged pair of books, Guy Vanderhaeghe makes his United States debut. He is, as you would guess, Canadian, in his mid-thirties, and a savagely funny writer.
In Ed, the protagonist of "My Present Age" and several of the short stories in "Man Descending," Vanderhaeghe has created the perfect vessel from which to launch his kamikaze sorties into contemporary life. Ed has never, and will never, fit in. He has the often mean objectivity of a terminal outsider: If he can't fit in, he's going to make damned sure that those who do are confronted by their hypocrisy. He is not a particularly sympathetic hero for a novelist to base a book on, but if we don't really like him, he at least wins our grudging respect. His confrontations with his friends are as entertaining as they are vicious.
"Do you know what I remember best about you? There were six of us sitting around talking about Gandhi and passive resistance . . . and you piped up and said that Gandhi had advocated, in his early days, that the Hindus slaughter the sacred cows and begin to eat beef."
"Do you have any idea what you all sounded like? You weren't really talking about Gandhi. . . . You wanted to convince yourself that if he were alive he'd have been sitting in that circle, passing the roach and being self-righteous."
Game, set and match.
Ed's caustic wit is not enough, however, to save him from his own tragic inability to face reality. He clings to the wreckage of a marriage that has utterly and irrevocably disintegrated. His wife, in fact, is pregnant by the man with whom she has been living. When Ed discovers that she has checked into a local motel to decide whether to have the baby, he decides to find her. Never mind that there are dozens of motels in town -- he launches a search as clever as it is pathetic.
Watching Ed turn from a funny and harmless buffoon into an alcoholic depressive is not a pretty sight, but Vanderhaeghe does not flinch. He darkens the mood subtly and quietly, as though he were turning down a lamp with a rheostatic control. Still, we are caught a bit unawares when the book ends with the lights out, so to speak. We are surprised to find that, despite the unpleasantness of his personality, we really care about old Ed, and we want to believe he has in him the resources to battle his way out of his predicament.
Oddly enough, so did Vanderhaeghe at one point. In the title story of "Man Descending," he grants Ed a kinder fate; gives him the will to overcome his self-pity and gain some dignity. I feel better about Vanderhaeghe somehow, knowing of his ability to deliver hope, as well as despair and cynicism. He has created one of the more quirkily appealing characters in recent fiction, and I want to believe that Ed -- and Vanderhaeghe -- will soon be back.