MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

From New York Brian Moore bids goodbye to Montreal, farewell Toronto squares

Mark Nichols August 1 1968
MACLEAN’S REVIEWS

From New York Brian Moore bids goodbye to Montreal, farewell Toronto squares

Mark Nichols August 1 1968

From New York Brian Moore bids goodbye to Montreal, farewell Toronto squares

BOOKS

Mark Nichols

WELL, HERE’S WHERE those bores in Montreal, and some in Toronto, get their come-uppance: Janice and Charlie Sloane, Blair and Peggy O’Connell, those Leducs and Eddie Downes. Not to mention that incredible hick Ernie Truelove (my God, he would have a name like that!). I mean the point is, you may have started life in some awful place like Nova Scotia (the only thing worse might have been Northern Ireland), so Montreal did seem like a big town for a while. But, really, when

a girl has at last made it to New York and married a sort of fashionable young English theatrical type, then, honestly, Montreal — well, it might as well be Cleveland or something.

So Brian Moore, one-time adoptive Canadian novelist of Belfast origin, has settled in the United States. His Jätest novel, I Am Mary Dunne (McClelland and Stewart, $6.95), obviously is tinged by his feeling of having arrived in the major leagues. Moore takes what must be a big chance for

any male novelist in attempting a first person singular portrayal of a woman, and to a very large extent is (as far as I can see) successful. What is infuriating to Canadians is that he just can’t resist peppering his book with pitying and pretty depressing cracks about the crowd up north.

Moore, through Mary, recalls Canada as a landscape of frozen, empty highways, graves and alcoholics. Thinking of Toronto, Mary sees Blodgett, the beer-swilling patriot who told her that “this bloody country, 1 tell you, this is democracy. God’s own bloody country.” But it is Montreal, she observes, “where it’s still ‘chic’ to know a queer. How great to have left it forever.’’ She remembers her Montreal friends, “all of them, so smug and small, so sick for horrors and gossip.” Acquaintances keep popping up to assure her, defensively, that "exciting things are happening in Montreal,” and “things are getting better there.” Gloomily she decides that “Canadians love getting drunk, they seem to glory in it.”

/ Am Mary Dunne covers one day in the life of the heroine, a beautiful Nova Scotian who, in her third marriage, seems at last to have made a satisfactory arrangement. She loves New York, and her husband. The trouble is that on the day in question, she keeps forgetting her name (she has had four surnames), her period is coming on, and she keeps meeting people who remind her of the recent death of her second husband. Hatfield Kent Bell had been from one of those old Canadian upper-crust families, but he’d been a terrible drinker. She should never have married him of course, but at the time he was a bigshot journalist on Canada’s Own Magazine, and Mary hadn’t really known her way around. But all these reminders of poor old Hat really get her down. On top of everything, Ernie Truelove has to show up, get horribly drunk and make a scene in front of her cool English husband. At the end of the day Mary considers jumping out of a window, decides against it and goes to bed repeating her name over and over.

In spite of its annoying features, / Am Mary Dunne is probably Moore’s best novel. A lot of his satire is valid, and his handling of erotic material is effective yet tasteful.

There is a marvelous section in which Mary elopes with her youthful fiance, along with a 40-year-old idiot, whom the young man is supposed to be driving to Ontario. There is a chapter dealing with Mary’s trip to Mexico for a divorce, and it too is among the things that make this a nearly firstrate novel.

In Dark As the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid (General Publishing, $6.95) another adoptive Canadian writer describes a trip across two borders into Mexico. But in this more or less autobiographical book, Malcolm Lowry is not fleeing Canada; he is trying desperately to run from "himself. Dark as the Grave should easily

qualify as theMost Depressing Novel of 1968. Like many of his books, if is chiefly about Lowry and his futile attempts to defeat alcoholism. Lowry’s classic Under The Volcano covered this ground so completely, that it is almost a pity his widow, M arger ie Bonner Lowry, and his biographer, Douglas Day, decided to put together this new book from notes and incomplete manuscripts.

What there is of a plot, though, is fascinating. Lowry, perfunctorily disguised as novelist Sigbjprn Wilderness, goes to Mexico, ostensibly to track down an old drinking friend, who. it turns out, has since died. While in Mexico, Sigbjprn starts falling off the wagon and eerily enacts the life of a fictional alcoholic from one of his novels (Under The Volcano). Sigbjprn’s drinking gets worse. Then he discovers the death of his friend and somehow this pulls him out of the drunken bout. After that, the book trails off inconclusively.

Just why Sigbjprn goes to seek out his friend Fernando is never made clear, but if anything Sigbjprn is seeking in equal parts his own salvation and his wilful destruction. “Fernando was perhaps the last friend he had alive or alive somewhere on these cactus plains, these hills, in this hell or heaven, he who had called him (Sigbjprn) ‘the maker of tragedies.’”

He finds streets he thought he had invented, and even finds himself living in a building he had never entered before, but where he had placed the central figure of Under The Volcano. Although much of Lowry’s handling of dialogue and action is clumsy, the scene in which he learns of Fernando’s death many years before is sharp and believable. In a provincial Mexican bank the local officials respond with Casti Ilian dignity to Sigbjprn’s grief and for once Lowry is plausible as he has Sigbjprn reflect: “He gave me his horse and ran himself. He sold me his best clothes for nothing. He gave me his friendship and advice I will use for the rest of my life. And he is dead like that.”

It seems to me that Lowry's greatest ability as a writer was in description. Apart from that, he falls among those saddest of all writers: a man of great talent, but with no subjects. Lowry’s books dwell on alcoholism, but there is hardly any analysis of the problem, no hint of what drives him to it. Drinking too much has made him paranoid, miserable. But we are told little more.. At times his writing is aimless, irrelevant, even embarrassing. But at other times Lowry sees intense beauty in life and the reader is appalled that such a man was driven to systematic self - destruction. Having cleared some of the habanero, mescal, and tequila out of his system, Sigbjprn regards the surrealistic scene of an ancient Mexican burying place and finds in “the inconceivable yet magnificent desolation of the whole place, an image, indeed, of death” which reminds him “of the even greater magnificence of being alive.”