Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Book Review #30: Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe

A classic collection of Canadian short stories by one of Canada's best writers.

First published in 1982, Man Descending, a collection of twelve finely crafted short stories set mostly on the Canadian prairies, won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Vanderhaeghe won the award again in 1996 for his novel, The Englishman’s Boy.

Showing astonishing range, Vanderhaeghe is equally adept at taking on the voice of an eleven-year-old boy stuck on a dusty farm or an unemployed husband whose marriage, like his scotch, is on the rocks (the ‘descending man’ of the title). His characters – man, woman or child – are wholly believable and achingly human. There are no superheroes here – just real human beings with all their foibles and failings, their charms and weaknesses.

He is particularly skilled at describing his creations: the grandmother with a “vinegary voice”; the father who was a “desolate, lanky, drooping weed of a man”; the child who is “loose-jointed” and “water-boned” with boredom; the husband with the “I’m-a-harmless-idiot-don’t-hit-me smile”.

In “Going to Russia”, a doctor interviews a lunatic who is telling the story. As in the other stories, the dialogue flows with the patterns and ripples of genuine speech caught and caged alive and still breathing. With wonderful twists and resonance, the two characters, in discussing a series of letters are actually tracing the ways in which Art imitates Life (and vice versa).

These are rich, satisfying stories with a touch of wry humour. Despite their layers of meaning and unspoken depth that can bear frequent rereadings, they travel lightly. They are like the prairies, in fact: allowing a clear view all the way to the horizon but revealing intriguing detail on closer inspection.

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