Writing as if possessed, Robert Harlow has created a contemporary version of Malcolm Lowry’s classic novel Under the Volcano. Although sex has replaced alcohol as the fatal obsession, the conclusion is the same—one cannot live without love. However, the vehicle for this cataclysmic odyssey is visibly flawed. Being trapped inside Paul Nolan’s head as he races his Jaguar around Vancouver from seduction to seduction is about as comforting as riding in a jet with two faulty engines.
Nolan is a macho man in search of his soul, a “loveless lover” traumatized in childhood into perceiving all women as impossibly virgin mothers or degraded whores. At 49, he lusts constantly after both during time off from his job as owner of a lucrative personnel consulting firm. He also possesses a wife more patient than Penelope, a jealous hatred of his younger son, Earl, and a belief that private life is “100 per cent theology.” His true spiritual mate has always been Matthew, a boyhood friend turned roving diplomat with whom he carries on an intensely intimate but intellectual correspondence.
Matthew’s return to Vancouver, after a 25-year absence, for his mother’s funeral and Nolan’s attempts to seduce Earl’s girlfriend, Mardi, trigger a series of catastrophes. In three eventful days they shatter the chains that Nolan’s infinite need for love have forged to enslave all who care for him. Sundering and separation are the hallmarks of our age, notes Matthew, and Harlow’s painstaking analysis of Nolan’s slackening grip on reality is masterful.
But for things to fall apart the centre must first be whole—and Nolan is not. It is impossible to believe that the man who pontificates with Matthew about “mail-order anti-Cartesian universes” is the same one who plays James Bond to his secretary’s Miss Moneypenny. His ironclad morality is too grotesquely estranged from his worldly wisdom. Nevertheless, despite dialogue that is often more weighty than witty, the power Harlow generates in evoking visceral sensations, like the “cloy of abandoned rut,” is worthy of D.H. Lawrence himself. Control, intones Matthew, is a form of violence; in or out of control, Harlow’s assault ensures that his macho man is much more than just a wayward stud.
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