Thursday, April 23, 2015

S is for Subtlety

April A-to-Z: must-read books

Gently Down the Stream (2005)
by Ray Robertson

Having met Robertson briefly and warming to his down-to-earthness, I wanted one of his books on my shelf and so made this purchase. My reading list was heavy at the time but I made the mistake of reading page one in the bookstore which forced me to read page two. At that point I couldn't put it down and would have read the whole thing in one long sitting except that I was forced to take one break due to a client commitment in the morning where I dared not show up on the heels of a literary all-nighter looking like Barney from The Simpsons.

To that point I'd attributed my great enjoyment to his marvelous sense of humour. I had laughed out loud - and hard - every few pages and was amused by the extent of things the hero and I had in common. We were men of the same era, locale and background and shared personality traits and flaws and pet peeves. I'd never experienced such a connection before, but then I'd never before read an author who is roughly the same age as I and who grew up in the same area. Suddenly I felt a new kind of belonging to a culture.

Robertson is a master of subtlety and this book is clearly semi-disguised autobiography and told in first-person perspective, present tense and as such does not reveal any of the narrator's self-awareness that would have been gained in reflection. The result is something I've never experienced before or since: The narrator exposing his own flaws in masterfully subtle manner: I had to absorb the hints thrown by the surrounding characters which the narrator himself fails to absorb. What a marvelous active engaging experience for the reader.

This is definitely a must-read book for any 40-something Ontarian male, though I'd recommend it to anyone.

A passage:

“We’re both working tonight,” I practically shout. They’re both decked out like they’ve got a heavy-duty social scene to tend to, but double-date nightmares dancing in my head mean I just can’t be too careful about being too obvious.

“Ah, yes,” Rebecca says, smiling, cutting her eyes Mary’s, then Phil’s way. “The mysterious meisterwork of Mr. Henry Roberts. Any news on when the world will finally get a glimpse of your magnum opus, sir? Now, this is the same book you’ve been working on that started out as your undergraduate philosophy thesis, correct?”

I nod. “Actually I’m in the revision stage right now.”

“It’s been in the revision stage since the late eighties,” Phil says, stroking Rebecca’s bare forearm.
“That’s not true,” Mary says, joining the fun. “The eighties were when Hank was editing. The nineties were when he revised. The new millennium is for spell-checking.”

Giggles all around.

“Joyce spent thirteen years on Finnegans Wake,” I say, drinking from my glass, clamping on a piece of ice between my molars.

“Well, let’s hope your book is a little less self-indulgent,” Rebecca says. “My theory is, get in, get out, and move on. This guarantees a certain freshness, an immediacy of expression, don’t you think?” She looks around the table for confirmation, and Phil must have given it to her because she kisses him full on the lips. The sound of their kiss is like a toothless man dying of thirst. “Besides, life is too short,” she says.

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