canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

by Marty Gervais
Mosaic Press, 2005

Reviewed by Adam Swimmer

Reno took Marty Gervais three days to write, less than a day for me to read and an hour to pen the review. Well, that's not exactly true. I actually read the book a few days ago and am just getting to write the review now, so I don't know how long it will exactly take me yet.

And I can't claim to truly know how long it took Gervais to write the book, only that he originally wrote it for the 3-Day Novel Contest which Anvil Press holds every Labour Day weekend, so I assume his first draft took three days to write, not accounting for any planning ahead of the contest. But seeing as he entered in 2002 and the book has a 2005 publishing date with Mosaic Press not Anvil, I imagine the book has gone through a number of revisions in the process.

But this contest clearly has shaped the story. Unlike much of Canadian fiction, Reno is not filled with heavy-handed symbolism and flowery prose that attempts to make grand unfounded statements about Canadian culture or identity. Reno is a simple story about a polio-stricken 12-year-old boy in the summer of 1957 who is confined to his house.

Henry Aldrich spends much of his time in his attic bedroom of his house in Muskoka, writing letters to famous people, such as Maurice Richard, John Diefenbaker and Louis Armstrong. Many of them send him autographed photos which he displays in a sort of gallery on a bulletin board.

But one person refuses to respond to any of Henry's letters: third baseman for the Detroit Tigers Reno Bertoia, who's in the running for the American League leading hitter title. He and the ball player are both originally from Windsor. He follows the season with baited breath. The boy has even changed his name to Reno to show his support and because he never liked his given name. (Gervais makes it clear at the outset, that although Reno Bertoia is a real person and the baseball stats listed are accurate, the book itself is a work of fiction.)

The prose is light and matter-of-fact. You almost feel like a 12-year-old is telling a story. Technically, he's telling it as an adult, as he occasionally breaks from the narrative to contextualize things and he uses the odd word or two a kid wouldn't, but the repetition of information and rambling paragraphs adds to the flavour of it all.

Much of how Henry experiences the world is mediated. There are not many people he physically interacts with on a regular basis. There are his parents, his tutor and later in the book another boy named Billy. But most of the rest of the people, he communicates to through letters, hears about through his father, or simply watches them through the attic window, which has a view of most of the town. He is literally sheltered from the real world, gleaning information about what's going through newspapers, radio and gossip.

As a result, the book lacks direction at times. Henry gets sidetracked in his idol worship of Reno Bertoia by his new friend Billy, the rumour mill and all of the other famous people to whom he writes letters. If the novel was longer this might cause problems, but its brevity and wit manage to sustain it to the end.

Some of these letters are quite entertaining. I especially like when he writes Paul Martin Sr. about his polio and gets a letter back where Martin talks about how the Liberal government is making "great strides in health care." That made me laugh out loud.

So despite its lack of any grand point, Reno is a pleasant work of fiction that keeps you engaged.

Oh, and for anybody keeping track, this review actually took me a little over an hour and a half to write.

Adam Swimmer is a freelance writer living in Toronto.







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