‘Daddy Lenin and Other Stories’ by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Daddy Lenin coverReviewed by Richard Cumyn from an advance reading copy

To those who still don’t know who Guy Vanderhaeghe is, congratulations on emerging from your thirty-year coma. A brief primer: he has published nine books of fiction and two plays, won national and international acclaim for his historical novels The Englishman’s Boy and its sequel The Last Crossing, and been named a Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellow. With Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, a collection so solid it should be a contender for any of this year’s major literary prizes, he returns to the form in which he won the first of his two Governor General’s awards, for the short fiction collection Man Descending in 1982.

Eight of these nine are long stories. The opener, “The Jimi Hendrix Experience,” is swifter and stranger than those that follow it, and has been collected in anthologies of fiction devoted to both the paranormal and the 1960s rock icon himself. Other stories have appeared in The Walrus and Prairie Fire.

Vanderhaeghe brings two perspectives into focus here. The first is that of a teenager finding his footing amid domestic turmoil. The second presents a man in later mid-life, approaching retirement age or already there. He is dealing with something complicating his life in the present or something from his past disturbing his not-quite-golden years. His concerns, modes of social interaction and means of communicating are stereotypically, unapologetically male. If he is the one narrating the story he is engagingly coherent. Like Vanderhaeghe himself (b. 1951) he has forty years or more of adult life to look back on.

Things happen at a good clip in these stories, leaving little slack in the narrative. Stale phrasing occurs often enough to be noticeable but not to the extent that it hampers the flow, and might be defensible as a mode of characterization. Such ready-mades as “dragged…kicking and screaming into the light of day,” “left to his own devices,” “comfortable in his own skin,” “rare bird” to describe a person,  “gone ballistic,” and “pathological liar” are so common we hardly notice them anymore. I found only one image, “pedal-to-the-metal bohemianism,” so incongruently mixed that it halted the proceedings (which may have been Vanderhaeghe’s winking intention).

The many pop-culture references in Daddy Lenin and Other Stories come from a two-decade period spanning the late 1950s through to the end of the 1970s. This establishes the age and era of the narrator or protagonist, but also potentially limits the book’s audience. Who born after the Mulroney years is going to connect with these voices? The answer is that a masterful writer should be able to make us care about characters from any time period. Based on this and his previous work, Guy Vanderhaeghe is eminently successful at doing that.

On the other hand, because his fiction follows familiar lines and creates predictable structures, Vanderhaeghe is not going to surprise us with his craft. Look elsewhere, therefore, for technical innovation. If surprise exists anywhere in this book it comes in those moments when we look up from the page to realize we’ve forgotten we’ve been immersed in artifice.

Occasionally a character or group of characters in this book is so exaggerated it toys with the limits of belief: the astonishingly cretinous Koenig family, for instance, in “Koenig & Company” and the violent, mawkish drunk, Uncle Ted of “Counsellor Sally Brings Me to the Tunnel.” In each case we see these people through the eyes of a man remembering a version of his adolescence after many decades. As the narrator of “Where the Boys Were” admits, “There’s license taken here, embellishments perpetrated.”  This speaker, “Pal Joey” Fenton, a small-town lawyer, deserves an entire story of his own. In giving us his account of the brothers Donny and Bob Peel, who live in a mining town so down-at-heel one newcomer dubs it “Dogpatch, Canada,” Fenton tells us:

Memory is an old whore eager to turn tricks with the body of the past to satisfy the customer. Think of me as the customer. Which means I’m always right. I need to see it this way.

In Vanderhaeghe’s hands we accept this admission and trust that Fenton’s version of events, if not strictly the way things happened, adheres to the story’s essence and may even nudge us closer to its mystery.

For every occasional hackneyed term, Vanderhaeghe gives us many striking images. The Koenig kitchen sink is clogged with “pots encrusted with the cysts and tumours of ancient leftovers.” Billy Dowd, the protagonist of “Koenig & Company,” is likened to a science-fair experiment, a bucket of sand to be turned by a girl (Sabrina Koenig) “into a very nice glass vase you can stick a flower in.” A wheat field’s stubble after harvest is “a blond brush cut sweeping over a knobby cranium.” Pumpjacks nod “somnolently” in the Alberta oil patch. Poplars on a golf course run “with a liquid ripple in the faint breeze, streamed like a green brook.”People queued at an ATM are so intent on their phones that they are likened to reverentially silent churchgoers “shuffling towards the communion rail.” A decrepit student-house is “this rotten molar in the jaw of the street.”

The story “Counsellor Sally Brings Me to the Tunnel” opens with zest evocative of Eudora Welty: “Never once, not once, did Ma ever talk about her brother, Ted, without sticking a little yellow Post-it note to her anecdote….” Later, in a blend of litotes and hyperbole, Vanderhaeghe suggests that Uncle Ted might not be the best choice to run a motel:

Aside from being an enthusiastic, awe-inspiring bouncer who tossed troublemakers through plate-glass doors and sent them tobogganing down the concrete steps of the bar on their bellies, Ted didn’t have the necessary skill set for success in the hospitality industry.

It’s not surprising, then, that Bert Molson, the narrator and Ted Aker’s nephew, was “intent on strigilating the last vestige and particle of Aker family values off” himself. A strigil was a curved blade the ancient Greeks and Romans used to scrape dirt and oil from their skin.

Vanderhaeghe is at his best when he moves his players one or two squares beyond the point where we assume checkmate should have happened. In the title story, for example, he lets his characters, a disgraced professor and his former graduate student, step back from a contentious exchange, a scene that might have ended explosively in the hands of a less experienced writer.

After 32 pages devoted to the ten months of Reinie Ottenbreit’s senior year of high school in the story “1957 Chevy Bel Air,” the next six years of his life pass in a single paragraph. Then, like a tautly wound rubber band suddenly released, four decades pass in fewer than three pages. The effect is breathtaking. Like the best of Alice Munro’s temporal compressions, the ending of this story reminds us that a disoriented, demoralized youth can become a successful, contented adult, and that forty years can elapse containing no period equal to the formative intensity of adolescence. Contentment comes with a price, Guy Vanderhaeghe reminds us. Read this and the other eight stories in this fine collection for their narrative completeness and the truths they tell.

McClelland & Stewart | 272 pages | $29.95 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0771099144


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