By Guy Vanderhaeghe
Ticknor & Fields. 292 pp. $19.95
"There is no essence of Canada that, sprinkled on a piece of prose fiction, will magically transform it," wrote Margaret Atwood in her introduction to "The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English." That, I take it, is a potentially liberating condition, sparing writers from having to scare up inspiration for the Great Canadian Novel and readers from slogging through gratuitous continental epics, northern division.
And so a writer like Guy Vanderhaeghe -- who made an impressive debut in the early 1980s with a novel, "My Present Age," and a short-story collection, "Man Descending" -- can publish "Homesick," a second novel of modest dimensions, without having to worry about selling his patrimony short. Indeed, the unemployed narrator of "My Present Age" cites such lowered expectations as a reason for masquerading as a writer: "In Canada ... writing, like soldiering, is an occupation for those young men for whom all hope has been abandoned."
"Homesick" takes place in the fictitious rural town of Connaught, Saskatchewan, at the end of the 1950s, some 17 years after Vera Monkman deserted her father, Alec, and her brother, Earl, to join the Women's Army Corps. Although daughters aren't often thought of as deserters, in this case there were binding circumstances. After the death of his wife, Martha, Alec had yanked Vera out of high school to cook, clean house and raise Earl. Her enlistment was motivated by about one part patriotism to nine parts revenge: Until the wrenching end of her academic career, she had been her class's most promising student.
Now, her husband long dead, she is moving back to Connaught with her 12-year-old son, Daniel. She isn't really homesick, the book's title notwithstanding. But in Toronto Daniel's grades were dropping (like his mother, like his late father, he is gifted). Worse, she has reason to believe he was becoming a regular, if so far petty, thief. Her scheme is to resettle him in a wholesome small town, and what better venue than Connaught, where Alec has promised to find them a place to live and her a job?
If Vanderhaeghe seems to be foreshadowing a pastoral redemption novel-in-the-making, he soon complicates the sketch. Vera and Alec's first meeting in almost two decades degenerates into a clash of surfacing animosities, with Daniel bobbing in the middle. Of necessity Vera has hardened into a woman of formidable independence, and when Alec leaves her little choice but to move in with him and earn a living as his and Daniel's housekeeper, she protests loudly before giving in. Alec's years on his own -- Earl disappeared some time ago, for reasons withheld from the reader at first -- have left him self-centered and half-dotty. In the meantime, however, he has become Connaught's Mr. Big, owner of several businesses, host of a nightly poker game, dispenser of small loans to cronies who are not held to a rigorous pay-back schedule.
With Vera's back always up, Alec's attention frequently wandering, Daniel tending his loneliness in a new town, and all three mired in prairie reticence, the house is rife with misunderstandings new and old. For one, Alec has never explained his seemingly irresponsible behavior after Martha died. Given to drinking and driving local back roads for solace and therapy, he always insisted on taking Earl with him. "You'll kill him, Daddy, driving drunk," Vera had complained. What he couldn't bring himself to tell her was that Earl's presence acted as a kind of insurance, that with his son in the truck he knew he wouldn't lose control of it. Even now Alec risks being taken for spiteful when he pretends not to know Earl's whereabouts rather than tell the sad (but not sordid) truth.
Vanderhaeghe invests Vera and Alec with vividness and complexity. In her job as a Toronto movie usher, Vera had succeeded in shushing noisemakers where her male counterparts might fail because she intuited the secret of applied willpower: "Don't let them get a word back at you," she explained to a colleague. "Above all never plead and never argue." Outraged by a sexual insult, she literally sweeps Alec's card-playing buddies out of the house with a broom. Alec teases Daniel to the verge of tears in their rivalry over televised American baseball games because he can't devise a less clumsy method of getting close to the boy, but otherwise he assimilates the newcomers into his household with an old bachelor's dogged resistance to change of routine.
He and his daughter make a fine match, and their disputes rise to an almost-classical level. Only Daniel seems blurred; for instance, though the novel frequently adopts his point of view, the reader never gets his version of why he stole in Toronto (assuming he actually did). This is an odd shortcoming, in that the author, who was born and raised in Saskatchewan and now lives in Saskatoon, would have been about Daniel's age at the time of the novel.
The story is told in a style so pungent that the reader might find himself stalled on compelling paragraphs. Here is Alec giving his garden its last weeding of the season on a crisp fall morning. "When he started the job the air was keen and thin, so keen and thin that the only smell it could float was the itchy, prickly one of tomato bushes and even that smell drifted in and out like radio reception from a distant station -- despite his carrying armfuls of frost-blackened tomato plants directly under his nose." The radio-signal simile is impressive, but for me it's the image of floating a smell that charges the passage with grandeur.
"Homesick" is a novel by a Canadian that attains, if not greatness, then excellence with room to spare. That should be plenty for discerning readers this side of the border. The reviewer is a Washington writer and editor.