The Stand-In by David Helwig (2002)

Porcupine’s Quill (2002)

I read this book as an attempt to read more authors from Prince Edward Island. It was quite unusual, but a good find. It starts…

It is death brought me here, ladies and gentlemen. I am not the man you wanted.

The speaker has been asked to come give a lecture in place of Tarrington who has suddenly died in a hotel room a week before. The speaker seems to be feeling a little put-out that he was only asked to come speak after several others (including Tarrington) were not able to. As a retired professor who taught for many years at this particular institution, he could be “assumed to be prepared for the weather” as a “last desperate gesture to avoid annulment”.

He has three hours to fill, on three consecutive days. He does it in a style that suggests he doesn’t care what his audience thinks.

First, he recounts the unflattering circumstances under which he was asked to be the “stand-in”. The speaker knew the man who was originally asked to give the lecture, Denman Tarrington, as a colleague for many years. He and his wife often played doubles badminton with the Tarringtons.

Although his lecture was about artists and their art, he often went off on tangents, telling stories about himself and even more stories about Tarrington. Unflattering stories about Tarrington; his superior attitude and his womanizing.

I remember once meeting him in the corridor of Arminian Hall on his way to teach a class, when he stopped to explain to me how much he liked going in to lecture with the musk of a female student fresh in his beard.

It was a mystery to me then and is now how Tarrington gained the belief that everyone loved him, and that he was excused in advance for all the wanton acts he might care to commit, that women might adore him in spite of his faithlessness, that the world would open their doors at his approach, that his lies would become truth once they were spoken, or if not become truth be found necessary and right in some other way. The blood that was shed was never his responsibility.

A new book was being written, it appeared, about his heart attack. This was clearly a lie as Tarrington had no heart. There was a direct wire from his brain – a capable one I admit – to his penis, which, as he made clear to the deep-browed man conducting the interview, was still in a flourishing state.

The speaker feels a little jealous it would seem. And with good reason. I like to think he was able to get out some of his pent-up bitterness against the man, and have some fun doing it.

I’m not sure the audience thought it was fun, though. On top of telling personal stories about himself and Tarrington, he commented on members of the audience and addressed some of them directly. He personally knows the President who invited him to speak (“I have seen you, Mr. President, glancing at your watch…“), and another professor who he worked with at the same time as he worked with Tarrington (“Belle, where are you going? Don’t leave. I find it reassuring to see a familiar face. Is it something I said?“). He also spoke directly to three young women in the second row, and commented on the three men in the audience who were wearing ties. He noticed and commented when members of the audience got up to leave.

It seems that Biblioasis re-issued this book in November 2017.

The speaker did spend some time on his subject – Canadian artists of a certain time period – which I found interesting enough to google as I read. He spoke about James Wilson Maurice and his friend Maurice Cullen. Ernest Thompson Seton, who wrote and illustrated stories about animals. And the French artistย Rose Happiness and her great horse painting.

As I skim back over the book, I notice how cleverly the author has woven together the narrative of the lecture subject with the speaker’s stories about badminton, birds, women, and their wives.

The Stand-In is an amusing and unique book, and I came out of it with the urge to visit an art gallery and learn more about artists unknown to me. Not bad for an obscure little book from Prince Edward Island.

David Helwig was born in Toronto and spent much of his life in Ontario, but has been living in Prince Edward Island since 1996 and therefore counts as a PEI author who is alive and is not LMM. He has written many books over the years and The Stand-In did a good job of whetting my appetite for more.

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23 thoughts on “The Stand-In by David Helwig (2002)

    • Naomi says:

      I was thinking the same thing about the covers. I’d say the newer cover from Biblioasis is more representative of the book. But, having read it, I can also see how the older one fits.

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    It sounds like a situation ripe for comic possibilities. Makes me think of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar. Either that or the sort of filibustering American politicians do to fill in time! At novella length this would certainly be worth a try if I could ever find a copy.

    • Naomi says:

      I really enjoyed it. I think it would also be a good candidate for a re-read. As I was writing about it, I was kind of wishing I had more time to read parts of it again. Instead, I think I will read another by the same author!

  2. James says:

    I thought the name was familiar, so I followed the link to find that he resided (and taught) in Kingston for a time. Ironically, I am in Kingston as I write this, and not in my beloved Miramichi.

  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    For some reason, the description of this book just hasn’t captured me. Maybe because it’s about academia, which I live, so I don’t want to read about it? Or the musk in the beard comment? EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW. *deep breath* EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree… EWW! That passage comes early on in the book, so it feels like a bit of a shock. But it also (suddenly) gives the reader a picture of this man and what the speaker thinks of him.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I have another of his books on my TBR, Killing McGee, but no note as to why. I know his name from his work editing the collections of short fiction published by Oberon over the years, but I’m not sure if I’ve read any of his work properly. Thanks for the insight to this slim – but intriguing – volume.

    • Naomi says:

      Killing McGee has a promising title! I just looked it up and it seems to be about another jealous, underappreciated academic. Hmm… something he knows about? Or maybe just sees a lot of?

  5. Ingrid says:

    Hi, Naomi. I found your review via a Biblioasis retweet. It’s so good to hear others are discovering Helwig’s books. To date, he has written nearly fifty, while also having written for CBC Radio & Television — many Canadians won’t realize they might’ve heard/seen his work at one time). From 2008-2009, he was Poet Laureate of PEI, and a new book about his writing — David Helwig: Essays on His Works (full disclosure: edited by me) — is forthcoming this year from Guernica Editions. If you’re interested, I would highly recommend two other novellas: SMUGGLING DONKEYS, and DUET (the latter, written before The Stand-In, but published after) — my review of it can still be found here: http://www.booksincanada.com/article_view.asp?id=3849

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks so much for getting in touch! It’s nice to get recommendations from someone who has read his books. Unfortunately, we don’t have either of the ones you mention in our library system, so I went ahead and ordered them, while at the same time requesting the library copy of Saltsea (which I would also like to try, and I noticed is another one published by Biblioasis – a publisher that has never disappointed me!) Stay tuned… ๐Ÿ™‚

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