The nominees for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for Fiction have very few similarities, besides being great reads (and colour-coordinated). There’s a short story collection and two novels. The settings take us from St. John’s to Cape Breton to New York City.
Dig by Terry Doyle, Breakwater Books
You’ve seen this book before – it was also nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction. Not too shabby for a first book!
Here’s an excerpt from my review…
The stories in Dig are short, contemporary snapshots of ordinary people’s lives. And what a wide and interesting variety of lives people have: A man whose leg was crushed at work is trying to pay the bills by buying and selling puppies; two friends ‘shoot the shit’ as they shovel driveways after a snowstorm; a man in town for a conference keeps putting off his departure day after meeting a woman he likes; a man seen panhandling on the street shows up later at a wedding all dressed up; a man patrols the streets at night after work looking for inconsiderately parked cars.
Going Dutch: A Novel by James Gregor, Simon & Schuster
This book was a complete surprise to me. I had no idea of its author’s Atlantic Canadian connection until I saw it on this year’s award list.
I like being surprised, but still wasn’t sure if it was going to be my cup of tea. Turns out I love more than one kind of tea – something I know but keep forgetting.
Going Dutch is a book about a man who is academically stuck and romantically confused. He identifies as gay… but there’s something about Anne that keeps drawing him back. (“They were like two ornery stray cats sitting on a wall, maintaining a peevish distance from each other, commenting bitterly on whatever transpired, and then disappearing into a dark space to copulate.”) Yet Blake is all he’d ever dreamed of. What is a guy to do? Apparently, he’s to cruise passively through his life and hope everything works out. Until it doesn’t. Then it’s time to bumble his way through his lies and mistakes and hope to be forgiven.
This was not lying, Richard felt; it was not deception… No, it was a kind of settling scores with his past, a long-delayed, retaliatory strike on the thinly populated years of his adolescence, the affective sparseness of his early twenties, the years of lying in bed alone at night while indifferent pornography played on the computer, the squalid spectator sport of watching friends and acquaintances drift in and out of love with the languorous motion of a dream techno dance, of tall sea grass swaying in a current. Like a defeated nation, surreptitiously rebuilding its arsenal, to strike back once and for all against the enemy that has cowed it, Richard felt he had been prepping himself for a great conquest of affection, the moment when he’d make his definitive stand against solitude and raid its most precious spaces.
It’s hard to describe Going Dutch without it sounding like a rom-com, but this is truly a story I have never read before. What do I have in common with a gay PhD candidate living in New York City? Nothing! But now I have some idea of what it might be like. Going Dutch is smart, thoughtful, and funny. I was invested. Sometimes I had to stop reading because I was too worried about what might happen if I read on. At one point, in my notes, I wrote, “there is just no good that can come of this”.
And should there be? After all the poor choices Richard has made?
James Gregor is good at making you think you know for certain what should happen on one page only to doubt yourself on the next. And you start to realize that if you’re so indecisive about what Richard should do, it’s no wonder he’s in so deep. It’s hard not to root for him, despite his flaws and poor decisions.
Sounds retreated, evanesced. The men in hunting jackets, the women in blouses and cashmere sweaters took on an alien algorithmic quality as they sat eating, drinking, and talking. It seemed to him that everyone had a life that was impregnably arranged, sensible and candid, anchored by necessary journeys and destinations, while his own was spectacularly fraudulent and estranged.
Some favourite lines…
The menu at the restaurant Anne chose for dinner was like the preamble of a serial killer experimenting with animals before making the leap to humans.
It was awful the way you could dislike, even briefly hate, someone you really cared about.
If he shifted even an inch, the sinister ripple of disturbed molecules would irreversibly alter the world.
Crow by Amy Spurway, Goose Lane Editions
Crow is another double nominee – also nominated for the Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award.
Here’s an excerpt from my review…
When Crow comes home, she imagines she’s come home to die, and to be taken care of by her mother. But life is not finished with Crow. She meets up with her old friends, enemies and flames, who she still refers to as Willy the Gimp, Duke the Puke and Becky Chickenshit (to name a few). It’s like being back in high school whether she likes it or not: her mother cooks her endless amounts of her favourite broccoli casserole; she hooks up with Willy the Gimp, her old high school “friend with benefits”, and amply partakes of his pot; and she’s reunited with her friend Char who is a new mom, a bit off her rocker, and who manages to convince Crow (along with a bottle of wine) to shave off all her hair.
The friendless, homeless, hairless end-of-life trajectory taking shape here is not the swan song I expected.
And that’s just a drop in the bucket. You think things can’t get much worse for Crow, and then they do. There is surprise after surprise in this book, and I can’t tell you about any of them! Suffice it to say that there is never a dull moment. I mean, it’s Cape Breton after all. Settle in with some tea and squares, get your head out of your arse, and enjoy the ride.
If I were inclined to believe that the almighty Universe is preoccupied with sending middle-aged, lower middle-class white ladies divine cosmic messages about what they should or should not be doing with their existence, I might interpret the events of late as a series of none too subtle signs that my plans to live and die on this island was, in fact, a bad one.
Words to live by…
Don’t be so contrary all your life, take a day off.
Some days, I feel like dying. But not today. Today, there’s shit to do.
The Margaret and John Savage First Book Award for Fiction is part of the Atlantic Book Awards.