The Reader XIV II - The Museum of Love

The Museum of Love

By Steve Weiner
The Overlook Press, New York, 1994, 214 pp., $29.99
Reviewed by Tim Mclaughlin

I dreamed I rose on an ostrich of white plumes and wore a Chinese gown embroidered with my sins. The clouds parted and I flew into a corridor of pyramids and obelisks. I sailed over the Nile of death. At the base of the Sudan mountains alter boys swung censers billowing smoke. A bishop interrogated me. I refused contrition. I fell. The air became dark, darker. I sank into St. Croix.

---The Museum of Love

A passage in Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers describes the torture of two Jesuit priests in 1649 by the Iroquois. Among other ordeals they are baptized with boiling water and given back a piece of their own rhetoric ". . . We baptize you, they laughed, that you may be happy in heaven. You told us that the more one suffers on earth, the happier he is in heaven." The incident is apparently found in old French Canadian schoolbooks. It could easily have been one of the lessons that Jean-Michael Verhaern, principle narrator of The Museum of Love, was forced to learn. The lesson could have gone so deep into Jean-Michael's consciousness that the sad and pathetic history of his family, his town, and all those around him became testimony for sainthood.

Jean is the son of a Swallowfield Prison guard who keeps a black museum of murder instruments, and an expelled nun who has frequent fits of hysteria and epilepsy. Jean runs a gang called les beuveurs: "The beuveurs played tru-madame, and sans egal and the Procuresse. I spread my cards: La Morte, Le Cadavre and the Prince Etranger." A new member is admitted to the gang after providing a fantastic and impossible confession. Jean slams down his fist and announces: he is admitted, because he told us fiction as though it was truth!

The histories begin in St. Croix, on Lake Superior. A town of "2535 people, two coal mines, a bowling alley, five churches and thirteen taverns." The town is segregated into Catholic, Protestant and Ojibway districts. Death visits them all.

Death came any time. Death came in corpse-sized bags the Ojibways unloaded from Norwegian freighters. Death came from the United States and was trucked to the towns of the north shore. When we heard the foghorns we crossed ourselves because we knew that le bon Dieu had washed his hands of somebody.

Death was in Rutherford Meadows, fixing a harrow. One could carry bags of meal to the barn and fall dead like the Basque boy Billy Sher. You could be reading the Diocesan Newsletter like Edmond Pic even in a portable toilet and die of a runaway truck. Death drove the newly-wed's boat, collecting flowers and money. Death beat the tambourine behind the Lamb of God. Death was a champion at la bataille. He beat the bowlegged priest Father Gregors, who died of lake fever in the spring.

Death hid in cupboards and dived out of steeples. He jumped from manholes and crouched in the ovens of the baker Freddy Granbouche. Death made no appointments. He walked into the Rutherford hospital any time like he owned the place.

The histories are often colloquial, like news imparted across the kitchen table. They have the visceral strength of a close account, as if they were told by the last surviving member of a family, conceding how each of the others had died.

Jean's life continues and is transformed by travel. The museums of Religion, Death, Suicide, and Negritude are each visited along the way. He becomes crippled and his physical appearance mutates as he descends a ladder of suffering. But the tone of his autobiographical narrative never wavers, even when the stories come out of the mouths of others: I was a sailor. I was an orphan. I was an Ojibway. I went insane. I was a hobo. I was a derelict. I was a Negro. I was a prison guard. Always the tone is nihilist black. Every site on the map that Jean Verhaern visits pushes back the cartography of failure, desperation, cruelty.

Yet the book is beautiful. Weiner's writing is exquisite and crafted to the point of brilliance. There is lyricism in suffering. There is a rare adoration growing through the cracks and fissures of wrecked human destiny. Jean-Michael sings with the voice of an angel with its throat cut. The book has a kind of sensual madness about it that is all pervasive, making the passages move with a brutal and hallucinogenic ecstasy.

Welcome to The Museum of Love. Here one views the relics of human lives through the broken jewel cases of religion. The lighting is poor and suspicious, of the kind that might be used to illuminate penny automata, or bad vaudeville. The relics are corrupt and the exhibits dysfunctional. Dust grows and the masking tape hardens to a brittle brown. Outside, a billboard is painted in the worst and the brightest colours of holy advertising. The museum could be an orphaned circus freak show or a box cast aside by Joseph Cornell on the verge of madness.

The Museum of Love is Steve Weiner's first novel. He was born in 1947 and grew up in central Wisconsin. Later, he moved west and studied writing at the University of California. He currently lives in Vancouver where he is working on a second novel.

Tim McLaughlin is a Vancouver writer and bookseller.

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