Keith Maillard’s first novel, Two Strand River, was a story of muddled genders. A male hairdresser trying out as a transvestite and a female swimmer washed up by Olympic competition discovered themselves separately via Indian shamanism in coastal B.C. It was a baroque tale imbued with Halloween magic. His second novel, Alex Driviny South, had a CBC producer from Vancouver revisit his roots in West Virginia and become mired in a grime of memories: alcohol, hot Tarmac and a French-kissing episode on the side of a fast-moving boxcar. This time the style was lithe, stripped for speed —beautifully crude lunch-counter prose.
With his third novel, The Knife in My Hands, Maillard explores another genre, the coming-of-age memoir, and takes his first stab at the delicate business of first-person narration. Unfortunately his writing lacks the muscle tone of his previous works. The first volume of two books collectively titled Difficulty at the Beyinniny, it is set in Raysburg, W. Va., the same fictional steel town that served as the locale for Alex Driviny South. Maillard, who lives in Vancouver, was born and raised in West Virginia, but he is careful to state in a postscript to Knife that he has tried to create only “the illusion of autobiography.” He succeeds too well. This drawnout diary of male adolescence in the ’50s suffers from authenticity. There’s not much story, just the overly familiar flux of relationships and revelations, and too often the characters are reduced to silhouettes in the glare of the narrator’s introspection.
The precocious narrator, John Dupre, is fluent in Freud and Nietzsche by the age of 16 and has chosen James Dean as a role model. Struggling to measure up to a Socratic ideal, he tests himself
against a stopwatch in school track meets, against the occult powers of cabalistic theology in college, and—most crucially—against the undergarments of a series of girl-friends who prove unwilling to dismantle either his ego or his virginity. Dupre is afflicted with the same jumbled sexuality as Maillard’s earlier characters. In fact, the author comes uncomfortably close to self-plagiarism when Dupre, precisely like the hero of Two Strand River, admits he spent puberty learning to apply “five careful coats of polish on his nails.” As a young man he finds it easier to love a girl with the “coltish” body of a young boy.
Maillard renders his female characters with a beautician’s eye for hair and skin, and any gender confusion is overcome by the sheer physicality of the novel. His prose seems to possess a li-
bido of its own, which uncoils most dramatically in describing athletic competition. Each Maillard book features a race or two—whether running, swimming or driving dead-drunk—and as he takes the reader inside the racer, inside “lungs straining like toy balloons,” his writing finds its stride. From his Vancouver vantage point, Maillard writes out of an American tradition that could be called automotive existentialism, a romantic philosophy by which the lessthan-macho male is stalled in a state of permanent adolescence halfway between J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac.
Unfortunately this tradition is all but exhausted. By failing to enhance it with the kind of plot intrigue he displayed in his earlier work, Maillard neglects one of his special talents and leaves us with a ribbon of fine writing stretched over a barren landscape. —BRIAN D. JOHNSON
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