canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Watermelon Row
by Michael Holmes
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000

Reviewed by Dimitri Nasrallah

Michael Holmesí debut novel Watermelon Row is, above all, a detective novel. And a wonderfully peculiar one at that. Open the book and straight away its highly poetic prose is leads the reader through a savage beating of a nameless woman by a nameless man. The poetic language is edged off by well-defended street-slang, and soon we are introduced to the lives of three men. The reader is propelled through the first half of the book solely on the notion of trying to figure out which one of these three will be the aggressor of that initial unnerving sequence, and who will become their unfortunate victim.

The three men are: Scott Venn, the corrupt sports agent who fears his marriage is in shambles; Ed Harrison, a retired blue collar type in his seventies who holds a grudge against his estranged daughter; and Peter James, a mid-twenties, acne-faced mama's boy. What do these three share in common? Nothing really. Except that they all live in Toronto, they like to drink a bit too much, and they all have this habit of spending a major portion of their day at The Rail, a strip joint.

If Holmes had stuck to those initial instigators he would have walked away with a decidedly fine first novel in his hands. But as the work progresses, one canít help but think that Holmes has bigger plans in mind. There are themes of good and evil here that, although well-intentioned, come across as over-simplified and under-studied. After a strong start, Peter and Ed become vehicles for weak literary device and lose their interest as they turn into caricatures of the main theme.

Holmes insists on further exploiting this age-old human struggle by repeatedly portraying good as a caged, frustrated budgie while evil flies freely about town as a mean sea gull. These external evocations of the novelís main theme, which would have required a delicate and subtle hand to work at all, are bludgeoned by over-writing.

One not only wishes Holmes would stop insulting the readerís intelligence with such blatant explanatories, but aches for a shred of new insight to be brought to the subject. Rarely is the human condition so simple as two polar components. A young Nietzsche proposed such ideas but instead explored the polarity between reason and irrationality. Such divisions as good and evil build an ill-conceived moral construct within the plot that weakens the writing to a point where the authorís much-admired edge wears dull.

Scott Venn, the novelís most developed character emerges as one of its few redeeming features. One canít help but think that he was the initial inspiration for the novel. His character has the push and pull of consequence in every action he takes. His actions resonate, his personality becomes intriguing. He alone of the three does not come across as contrived.

Holmes, however, has a firm grasp of all his minor characters. Many faces come in and out of this novel that are ultimately more interesting that Peter James or Ed Harrison. There is more captured in a sequence in which Belle, Edís estranged daughter slips a note of reconciliation through a mail slot with nobody home. The note floats beneath a table, probably never to be found. It is in these little flickers that Holmes is most successful, in subtly alluding to paths that will never be crossed because of the choices we make.

As a detective novel Watermelon Row is a suspense-driven, satisfying read. Too bad it tries so hard to be so much more.

Dimitri Nasrallah is a Toronto-area writer and reviewer.







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