canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Very Good Butter
by John Lavery
ECW, 2000

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Very Good Butter is a great name for a book (it is metaphoric, suggestive, tasty), and Very Good Butter is worthy of its moniker. This collection of short stories is the first book by John Lavery, a Quebecer with an international and varied education. He puts both qualities to good use.

Butter - which by itself is little more than fat - is what we add to food to give it extra flavour, even to make it palatable. The image on the cover of someone chomping on toast is a perfect example. Just looking at that photograph is enough to make one salivate. Is Lavery suggesting his stories add a little extra to life? Are his tales about the spices that make existence palatable? Such speculation is interesting, but not rewarding. Which is a little like butter, too - it tastes good, but offers little nutritional value.

The ten stories that make up Lavery's strong first collection contain many first-book joys and concerns. Lavery's voice is fresh. His stories are sprightly and provocative. They do not settle for the easy conventions of lost love, small town isolation, or urban alienation. For example, one of the strongest stories - "The Premier's New Pajamas" - follows the ordeal of one provincial premier's speech writer, who assists his boss escape from student protesters by driving the premier out of town to his mother's. Once there, the premier lays on some heavy homoerotic innuendo and then disappears. The strongest element of the story is its narrative voice, which moves quickly and refuses to allow the reader to settle on any singular narrative track for long - the instability of meaning being one of Lavery's strongest themes.

The strength of this theme, on the other hand, contributes to one of the concerns about the book. Namely, it falls into a common first-book trap - the one-note syndrome - as the stories strike a similar tone again and again. But this failure is more than forgivable, as Lavery has demonstrated an original calling and vision, which if it borrows from anywhere, it borrows from fabulists like Terry Southern or Italo Calvino - who are part of a constellation in the literary universe Canadian writers, and readers, could do worse than visit more often.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.