Joseph Bourne is the most improbable of literary figures. He is a Canadian poet who has won international fame and the willing recognition of co-eds the world over, but throws it all up to flee west and live anonymously in a shack on Vancouver Island—a shack most likely vacated by a small-press poet going east. Bourne’s mystifying behavior, however, is covered by the literary licence he holds as the latest of author Jack Hodgins’ fiction heroes. Like Donal Kineally in Hodgins’ first novel, The Invention of the World, Joseph Bourne is not handicapped by reality. He can roam through Hodgins’ new book at will, breaking every ordering principle of the universe.
Once again Hodgins plays myth and fantasy against a backdrop of rain and mud on the West Coast logging islands—and is confronted by the same problems he faced in The Invention of the World. Rain and mud are not in themselves as interesting to most readers as a backdrop of, say, the bazaars of Azerbaidzhán. The writer has to work harder to capture the reader and in Invention, Hodgins’ very hard work showed. This time, though, he has written a novel that is more structured and smaller in its reach than the first, but considerably more within his grasp. This does not mean “small” in terms of characters. Hodgins plays with plot, subplot and sub-subplot with enviable ease, using the baleful figure of Joseph Bourne to link them all together.
In his getup of rain-soaked kimonos and tattered robes, Bourne is a source of bewilderment to the gossiping inhabitants of Port Annie, an isolated island community that bills itself as “The Pulp Capital of the Western World.” The town’s bewilderment increases when that always welcome staple of fiction—the siren with the enigmatic smile and mysterious powers—washes up on the shores of Port Annie. Her name is Raimey and she has come to save Bourne (and while she’s at it, most of Port Annie) from self-destruction.
Her results are persuasive. Joseph Bourne dies and is reborn as a miracle man. Port Annie’s repressed librarian liberates his libido. The town scandal, Jenny Flambé, a stripper in search of respectability, finds out that true love does not require either marriage or dinner parties but rather a willingness to give your all —in her case, a seven-veils dance for the assembled community. All this is accomplished through the magic therapy of Raimey who is clearly much more fun than primal scream and just as simpleminded.
But simplemindedness is one of the strengths of this book. Hodgins has written a delicious puff of nonsense about nothing. He may have intended his book to be read on another level, one where he addresses himself seriously to the fundamental questions of life and death and good and evil which so perplex the omniscient narrator of his novel, but one hopes not. On that level the book has no fresh insights and little tried and true wisdom. It is as an increasingly deft teller of tall tales that Hodgins succeeds. No mean feat.
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