Monday, February 14, 2011

Manglest thou thy novel just to make it fit for Valentine's Day?

CHAPTER THREE (From Light Over Newmarket)

She was lying face downwards on her terrycloth towel, a breeze toying with her fine blonde hair. I reached out to stroke that hair, so spanking clean, and the woman turned to face me with her full pale blue eyes, wide apart and a little crazy, the high California cheekbones and a mouth as wide and pretty as an idyll's.

We were lying in the grass before a Mexican spa, one of a dozen in the central plateau, the hot springs of Los Antes, lush and tropical in a benign late February sun. Before us steamed a pool, hot as a bathtub, fat old tourists squatting therein like latter day versions of souls being cleansed in Dante's purgatory.

What a far cry this was from frosty Canada, from the sense of hopelessness and death that comes every February, when nothing seems to break the gloom, the threatening darkness, the pallor of one's skin. Canadians are more like Finns or Norwegians, not at all in temperament like the "slow Americans" that someone had labeled them.

Like the Finn, the Canadian drinks to excess in the course of a long and oppressive winter; he entertains gloomy and destructive thoughts on the worst of the snowy or slushy days, building up slow, smoldering resentment against one's wife, one's children, one's dog.

I hope I didn't come to Mexico just to escape winters, I was thinking, my plans, my equations, my diagrams now not meaning very much at all. I was conscious again that I was in possession of a body, mine and that in the end, back there, no gain, no gain at all was worth the loss of one's health.

But how little it had taken to turn it all around. The sun. O that sun! No wonder the Aztecs had worshipped it.

"I love you, I am saying to the bikini-clad long-legged slightly knock-kneed but pert form lying beside me, and I play with her hair. I am, I know, perhaps the thirtieth. Times change. This isn't the fifties, where an entire generation seemed to have spent its life in a penal colony. Still, something of my Cabbagetown gutter language slips through the onion letters of my personality. She's lovely, but if she had as many pricks sticking out of her as she's had sticking into her, she'd be a goddamn porcupine. But that's adolescent talk that even the slum kids don't use today. Everybody's gone cosmic.

Sex was really nothing in l977. You can have sex, lots of sex in this sexy decade. But in the case of Valerie, I realized that it wasn't the sex at all. She was a sister, like a twisted sister of my own, twisted but now socialized, perhaps overly socialized. I had never been nuts, but I was listening very carefully to her take on me, getting me in touch with who I was, what I felt, where I had been and where I was going. I just loved to hear her talk and seemed to be finding out about myself and her. I was growing to love Valerie only in the space of a very few weeks.

I looked over the modern pool at Lost Antes, through the flattened, crabbed greenery of thorn and pepper trees, their roots in the warm earth, branches spreading out and threatening to drop to the ground completely, the gardeners propping up the limbs with thick deadwood tree crotches, giving the trees a surreal look, like those enormous distended brains in the Dali paintings, these too supported by their inverse slingshot crotches.

Above the pool, the grass and the distended trees, a rich sky of a very dark blue, the blue of the thin Mexican sky. Most of Mexico was about seven thousand feet in altitude. No wonder so many of the Gringos seemed to be half-intoxicated all the time. The rarified air, the instant aristocratic status afforded to any North American. This was the place to be, to finally face the thing that had bothered you for so long back there, up north.

It was all so easy. All one had to do was to leave the scene of ones misery. "Abandon you creeping meatball." That's what Jerry Rubin had been saying and it had at the time made so little sense to me, there in the late sixties, in the university, with my blackboards and my equations, seeing under my very nose a generation that was truly like no other one ever on the face of the earth. I had at first laughed. A passive generation of Christs led by a so-called youth activist hardly younger than myself. Yes, the creeping meatball. The job, the departmental politics, the killer instincts of those around me, the illness, the cancer that thrives so well back up there, cells crying out against the rigidity of their form in a culture built on speed and abstract work.

All one had to do was leave. Or was that all there was to it?

I stroked the woman's hair again, moving my hand to her deeply tanned back, hot now in the sun. This morning I had made love to her twice and she had risen from the bed like a thing young and free and I told her to wait, not to leave, and I'd love her once again.

Valerie, from Santa Barbara, drying out from her drugs, her past life, her divorce. As in my own case, it seemed to take the Mexican sun no time at all to restore her to a brown, healthy vitality, to take her mind off herself and to restore it to the world. My world.

Had I been a younger man, I would have been content to merely gape at Valerie in mute reverence. She was lovelier than any dream. And she was attracted to me, who was balding and carrying a spare tire, me who was supposed to be the mad scientist gone over the hill, at least in my wife's estimation, and in the estimation of my doctor, far worse.

I'd met her shortly after arriving in Mexico. She was everything and she was nothing. Tall, stunning a traffic stopper, she was indeed beautiful, yet the simplest in psychology and makeup. She tended to talk like a hairdresser or a commentator on those eye-on-entertainment television shows, something of a bimbo, but what a bimbo! She had been an actress and a good one. I could tell. She had a memory. Could read two pages, close the book and relate it all to you. Then tell you that words were mere traps for fools and emotions was where she lived. You could see what happened to her. Somewhere, because of her divorces, she had lost the snap between logic and emotion and some therapist had spotted it. Yet she was still the empath the gorgeous Lorelei. And I was so lonely that I would do anything, anywhere just so as not to be alone. And it was my luck to end up with a Candice Bergen.

How does it come to a man that he adopts a strange bed in a move that seems congruent with some failure in his life, the failure of a scientific project, a creative project or a whole life wrong from the start?

I had decided on a town called Manuel Hidalgo in Mexico, a lovely hill community recommended to me again and again by some of my fellow professors who had gone there on sabbaticals to work on private projects or just to rest up and re-evaluate their lives and careers.

I had arrived at the town square, triumphant and exhilarated at first, exhilarated by the palms, aches, porticos, blue hills and the sense of having nothing to do for the rest of one's life. Lordships are still so easy to buy in this upside-down century.

Yet, by about the fourth day, I felt very self-conscious and very alone, there among the arches and the palms. Try to come in cold into a culture of strange customs, strange 17th Century churches, strange casual people, and you will feel yourself diminished, a nobody.

I had been somebody back home, the professor, the hundred-dollar-a-day intellectual. But here in the terraced restaurants, in the flowered Jardine, the flowered town square, with its boat-tailed grackles and rubber trees, I was nobody, still one more middle-aged fuckup who had had the sense to avoid ultimate embarrassment and failure by leaving my immediate surroundings. Kevin Logan talking to all the aging expatriate hippies, some hardly younger than himself, Kevin Logan talking to anybody and everybody, spreading himself thin (this was not the familiar university, professor), nervous, vulnerable, alienating himself and finally reduced to drinking in the cheapest and easiest spots to talk with the people, for you needed no social skills down in the pulque bars and dives. The tequila and the smoke usually carries you to a lower order of existence than you had anticipated, the scary Lost Weekend feeling, and after a while, as long as you were drunk, you really didn't care.

I sat with old men, American and Mexican, finding them congenial. The younger ones were dangerous, many of them, frontier-fashion, carrying guns. The old Americans of Manuel Hidalgo were an unusually approachable breed, younger in spirit than their counterparts back home in the old age lockups and the VA hospitals. The old men of Manueal Hedalgo had, many of them, come to Mexico to escape the bedpans and the smell of urine and death. These were men who were still really young enough to even undertake new projects, who resented the cult of youth back home, the cult that would not recognize healthy seventy-year-olds who could be as puzzled over existence as men of thirty-two, as sensitive as adolescents and as scared of the future as the youngest intellectual in the increasingly tight patriarchy that is Latin America.

In my loneliness and my drunkenness, I poured out my troubles to the old men, taking my turn, after they had poured out their troubles to me. Men, young and old, are indeed strangers on this planet. It is the business culture of work and competition that keeps men away from the real issues. In Mexico, with these elements absent for the visitor, people tend to talk about ultimate concerns: "Who, what, where am I and what is the meaning of my life?" People frequently huddle together when they ask such questions of themselves and others. So I huddled with the old men. And the old men were offering their observations.

"You think that you have left your wife for just a little while," one of the old men was saying. "That's what you think. You have left her for good. You are on a rollercoaster, boy, and it's going to take you some distance by the time you decide to get off.

"No, you're never going back. Never."


Charles Gramlich said...

Eyes wide apart and a little crazy. Yeah, there was a time when that sort of woman would have had me eating out of her hand.

ivan said...

Those are idylls. They're shapely and cute, and have almost gossamer fairy wings. They seem to live near water. Nymphs.

Or Lorelis?

Mona said...

You sound like D H Lawrence...

Happy Valentine's Day Ivan said...


...Coming from you, that's flattering.

I must now continue to keep mining for words.

I might get a good job "down pit." :)

...And a belated Valentine's Day to you!

ivan said...

Chris Benjamin just wrote in to offer a questionnaire about his debut novel, Drive-by Saviours.

I was too dumb to put up his entire HTML, but here are the questions.

Drive-by Saviours Book Club Questions

Were you drawn more to Mark or Bumi? Why?

Which of the two men did you most identify with? Why? Was the one you identified with the same as the one you were drawn to? Does that tell you anything about yourself as a reader? As a person?

Mark suffers from paralysis by analysis – he wants to help but he has so many questions and he is so overwhelmed by uncertainty that he usually fails to act at all. Did this irritate you? What would you say to Mark if he asked for your advice?

Between the two men, Bumi faced greater challenges in life, yet Mark was the more disillusioned of the two? Why do you think that is? Did Mark hold your interest as a character despite his negativity and boredom with his own life?

The novel was half set in Indonesia and half in Canada. Which scenes were most compelling for you and why? Was Bumi’s life in Canada as interesting as it was in Indonesia? Were his struggles with life as an illegal immigrant and his homesickness and culture shock compelling?

The novel alternates between a chronological third-person account of Bumi’s life and a first-person non-chronological narration by Mark. Why do you think the author chose this unusual structure? What was he trying to convey? Did he succeed?

The novel dealt with many themes: mental illness, social isolation, international development, Canadian multiculturalism, culture shock, immigration, cultural preservation, the question of what it is to help, the psychological impacts of authoritarianism, and indigenous healthcare. How do you feel about political literature? Did these issues serve the plot? Or did the plot seem like a device used to discuss political issues? Were politics too abundant in this work? Or a necessary component of a complex story?

Drive-by Saviours is also a novel about relationships, that of Bumi and Mark, Mark and his girlfriend, sister, parents, in-laws; Bumi’s parents, wife, kids, friends, in-laws. How did these various relationships feel to you? Authentic? Challenging? What made these relationships healthy or unhealthy? How did the main characters grow as a result of their relationships?

Drive-by Saviours, written by a male author, is primarily about Mark and Bumi. There are also many female characters in the book. How did you feel about characters like Michelle, Sarah, Gaby, Yaty, Bunga and Win? Are they well developed and complete people? Do they perpetuate or challenge sexism and predominant stereotypes? Women are often infantilized, sexualized and victimized in portrayal – do the female characters in this book fall into this trap? Or are they whole people with individual strengths and weaknesses?

Check out images from Chris' book launches and tour at

Anonymous said...

Hi folks,
My latest column, Disappearing farms: We can barely feed ourselves yet we’re replacing farms with business parks, is in The Coast this week. You can find it online at

Happy reading!


Check out images from Chris' book launches and tour at said...



It's the great gold rush all over again, but in real estate here in Canada.
Corn fields become Wal*Marts.