canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Anne Denoon
Porcupine's Quill, 2002

St. Patrick's Bed
by Terence M. Green
Forge, 2001

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Backflip is set in Toronto's art community in Canada's centennial year, 1967. Anne Denoon has recreated with exceptional clarity the provincial nature of the city on the verge of a cosmopolitan boom - and a national culture on the verge of an introspective renaissance. Denoon's Toronto may be set in the same year as Expo, but her Canada is pre-nationalist obsession. And her artists are virtually all abstract expressionists. There is something retro in her retro, which isn't necessarily a problem (just a curiosity). 

If Backflip had been written in 1967, it would hold a place alongside The Edible Woman as an example of the new wave of Canadian writing that came of age in the late-1960s. As it is, Backflip will likely disappear with the rest of the wave of small press books published in 2002. Which is a pity, because Backflip is better written than The Edible Woman. It's just as smart, just as quirky, but it also has thirty years of reflection layered into it. Though not self-consciously. 

For example, Backflip presents Toronto's male art establishment as blindly misogynistic. Yet, these men are also presented sympathetically - however pathetic they tend to look through 21st century eyes. Denoon doesn't borrow from Atwood the great-Peggy's sly putdowns of men. She just lets the men live out their roles, which are halfway charming and halfway ridiculous.

A plot summary: A young Toronto artist (male) paints "Backflip", a painting that garners special attention at an art show. The gallery owner tells the painter that the painting is sold to an anonymous buyer, but really the owner has kept it for himself. Which becomes relevant when a London, UK, art dealer comes to town looking for work to take to the UK for a trans-Atlantic show. The painting is nowhere to be found, so the painter paints a duplicate. Meanwhile, the artists and poseurs around town are involved in various artistic and sexual intrigues.

Okay, so it's not One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but Denoon's characters are brightly realized and her language is precise and robust. This isn't a novel that patronizes the reader, nor does it try to dazzle with obscure prose. Backflip is gripping and heartfelt, and I look forward to more from this author.

Terence M. Green's St. Patrick's Bed is a sequel to the author's earlier novel Shadow of Ashland (1996). In that earlier book, the narrator, Leo Nolan, traveled south from Toronto into the American heartland after 50-year-old letters from his uncle starting arriving in the mail following the death of his mother.

That mystery solved, Nolan returned north with his new bride and her son and settled back into life as usual. Until his step son starts asking questions about his biological father, who's still living in the USA. This is where St. Patrick's Bed begins. The plot is less fantastical than Shadow of Ashland, but once again the story turns on the connections and extensions between individuals who are members of the same family. And the plot is just as deeply heartfelt - though some might find it sentimental.

One criticism: I found the story dragged where Green turned to the back story, filling in dates and details of previous generations. Yes, the narrator struggles to make sense of past, present, and future, but I just wanted the story to go forward and not draw me into a network of relationships that didn't seem to add up to as much as the narrator seemed to think they did. Oh, well. 

The plot largely consists of Leo Nolan making another road trip to the USA to find the father of his step son. Why he felt compelled to do this was never clear to me. He wants to make sure the man is safe before the step son makes the same trip himself. Well, all right. But I thought he was stealing the kid's adventure, taking all of the risk out of it. It's not really Leo's story, but he makes it his anyway.

Leo does have his own story, though. And the novel turns to it as it runs toward its end. I thought the ending of this book was like a large blast of fireworks. It allowed me to forgive some of the earlier sections that I wasn't too keen on. St. Patrick's Bed is a location in Ireland. I won't say any more. The book makes it all make sense. 

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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