As I opened up my notes on this book, I felt a little overwhelmed – two pages of notes, back-to-back, in tiny print.
But that’s not too surprising – Aubrey McKee is a big book and it takes place primarily in Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Alex Pugsley is originally from). So there was a lot to interest me. If you are familiar with Halifax at all – and especially if you grew up there in the 70s and 80s – you might consider this book a must-read.
I am from Halifax, saltwater city, a place of silted genius, sudden women, figures floating in all waters. “People from Halifax are all famous,” my sister Faith has said. “Because everyone in Halifax knows each other’s business.”
I have written down a list of some recognizable Halifax places mentioned in the book – some fleetingly, others more substantially: Neptune Theater, Spring Garden Road, Park Lane mall, the Palace, Quinpool Road, Westmount, Sacred Heart, the IWK Children’s Hospital, Gorsebrook Hill (sledding!), Point Pleasant Park, McNab’s Island (the setting for Thomas Raddall’s novel Hangman’s Beach), and the Waegwoltic Club.
Aubrey McKee is a coming-of-age novel made up of short stories (some of which are quite long). It’s full of fabulous sentences and probing paragraphs – an examination of the influences of friends, family, neighbours, teachers, time, and place that dictate what we do, how we react, and shape us into who we become. (In a comparative review by Marcie, Pugsley’s prose is described as “exuberant and highly emotive” and she notes his “love of words”.)
Each chapter/story takes us chronologically through Aubrey’s life, from a young child to a young adult. Although his father and sisters play a part in his life, it’s Aubrey’s mother who stands out most; her unpredictable nature and her quick judgment of others: “It was not exactly anomalous for my mother to offer judgments about people she saw in the neighbourhood. As a rule, she was very free with her appraisals of character, conduct, possible imperfections. Why exactly she attached herself to a conclusion was sometimes hard to pinpoint–for, as we kids intuitively understood, her own biases shifted over time, so that someone who was a perfect asshole last week might be an absolute saint the next.“
Aubrey was more affected by his parents’ volatile relationship than he wanted to admit. “Though I walk the same streets I’ve always walked, past houses where inside my friends are indifferently watching ‘Happy Days’, for me it’s as if a few land mines have detonated beneath the city somewhere. The landscape seems altered and desolate. I am often alone in my new room, tracing a Kamandi comic or scanning the TV listings for comedy movies. I find the unsupervised freedom distantly oppressive and, as I wait for a new normal to emerge, I reassure myself that my life is only somewhat suspended and that moments of fulfillment and euphoria are still possible.“
Being one of five siblings did seem to result in a certain amount of freedom for Aubrey, though some of it unwanted. At the age of seven, he was admitted to hospital with a bone disorder. There he stayed for the whole summer: “I was so surprised by my new situation that I mostly pretended it wasn’t happening…” And, at the end of his stay, took a taxi home by himself because no one in his family was able to meet him. But here, too, was one of my favourite parts of the book – how he met and made friends with the Purple-Faced Boy.
… a Guy with No Arms and No Legs. He was mostly just a head and I felt so humiliated and sorry for this purple-faced boy, who was living an existence he hadn’t chosen but which he must have known was about as wretched as a human life could be–and I am ashamed even now as I write this–that on that first morning I couldn’t look him in the eye and was too afraid to talk to him.
Aubrey’s freedom also led him to meet and befriend–at the age of twelve–the known bully and drug dealer Fudge. It doesn’t take long before Aubrey finds himself “morphing from Comic Book Nerd to Mysterious Stoner Outcast.”
“You don’t fool me, McKee, you smug little punk, smoking your drugs and mocking your betters, but when it gets rough you’ll retreat into the coze and comfort of your South End family.” And I was ashamed. Because in my heart I knew he was right.
Luckily, Aubrey has other friends who eventually become his new center, starring the “incomprehensible” Cyrus Mair. “I thought him reckless and exuberant and smart. He was fabulously weird.”
The city of Halifax is, of course, its own character in this book. It is deeply considered by Aubrey as he thinks back on his formative years there. Like himself, it is full of contradictions: “frustrating and lovable”, “crummy and magnificent”.
… life in Halifax is rich with connection and overlap, with shared lives and shared relationships. It’s almost impossible to be discrete there. Everyone’s life complicates with connection–though complicate doesn’t seem to adequately convey the saturated, interrelated confusion of its lives… I do think of Halifax as vast and big, rich and strange, changeless and changing, this mess of small eternities, and in my mind I’ve counted all the cracks in its sidewalks, seen all the tennis balls on its school rooftops, looked in the eye all its leading lights.
… this was Halifax as I knew it, as I lived it and felt it, and this pattern of reminiscences, these feats of recovery, these acts of betrayal, have become my Halifax Book. I have done my best to recover these moments, to display them as best I could, and to show the mysteries–and people–who were to me the city’s truths.
Favourite paragraph: … if you were to yank open a drawer at our house, you’d find a blue Christmas tree lightbulb, a disembodied Barbie head with the hair hacked off, a baffling postcard from Uncle Lorne, a rusting Double A battery, one of my father’s yellow legal pads, an unrinsed dental retainer, a capless red Flair marker, a school photograph of a kid caught mid-blink, a muffin recipe torn from a cereal box, traces of a broken Pringle’s chip, a shriveled carrot. But slide open a drawer of the Benninger’s and see only a clean stack of mint-condition Architectural Digest magazines. Or a silver cigarette box. Or a single brown dreidel on its side, just now settling to a stop, its rolling prompted by the drawer’s gentle movement.
Favourite line: For a kid, the world seems full of too many people and not enough stories.
Kirkus Review: “The life of a Canadian city is revealed with verve and insight through the colorful stories of some of its inhabitants.”
The Star: ““Aubrey McKee” is no austere, white-walled art gallery of a novel. It’s abundant, highly decorated, and unafraid of extravagance, of stylistic excess...”
Lindy Pratch: “Not only is this the kind of literary fiction that you can really sink into, it also contains layers that reward rereading.“
Thank you to Biblioasis for providing me with a copy of this book!