The opening sentence of John Gray’s first novel, Dazzled, is “I was an asshole in 1974.” The delicacies of English usage aside, it is a compelling introduction to the story of Willard, who used to be what he said he
was—but is no longer. Willard, an idle graduate student who considers it beneath his dignity to wash the breakfast dishes while his wife, Wanda, works all day as a dental assistant, is the central character in an admirably ambitious, funny novel set in Vancouver in the 1970s. In Dazzled Gray tells, with only partial success, the story of how and why 1960s idealists came to grief a decade later and how some of them—Willard, for one—managed to scrape through to the 1980s with at least a few of their values still intact.
To re-create time and place with all their nuances is almost as challenging to an author as creating believable characters. Gray comes equipped with formidable experience and some success on both fronts, but in a different medium. The transplanted Truro, N.S., writer, now living in Vancouver, is the author of three acclaimed stage productions—IS Wheels, a wry ode to truckers; Rock and
Roll, a musical about a Maritime rock band; and the internationally successful Billy Bishop Goes to War, a drama about a First World War fighter ace which won the Governor General’s Award in 1982. In all three productions Gray took his audience into a highly idiosyncratic world and made each come alive. But in another medium and another world —full of aged Vancouver hippies—Gray has lost some of the intensity of his art. Dazzled falls victim to too many cute premises and too many farcical overtones. The result is a surface glide through an era familiar to most readers rather than any dramatic insight into it.
To use one of the few pieces of 1970s vernacular not found in the book, Willard is going through changes. It all begins during a terrible domestic scene brought on by the undone breakfast dishes. Wanda, who without knowing it is in the first flush of feminism, orders Willard out of the house to get a job. He improbably finds himself selling polyester suits in a suburban shopping mall, anathema to anyone steeped in what Gray calls the “glorious, snotty cultural elitism” of the 1960s.
The rest of the novel concerns Willard’s strange odyssey through the summer suit sale, a wrecked marriage, a desperate stint of living in a commune with “a steady stream of hairy denizens z from what was left of Vang couver’s psychedelic subcul^ ture,” a nervous breakdown g and even through an attempt s at cultural anarchy: he and a friend sabotage the local television stations in an effort to rid Vancouver of U.S.-dominated broadcasting. In effect, Willard journeys through the decade ending up not only a sadder, wiser man but also a successful dealer in used clothing.
But the journey could have been more interesting: Willard is not the way he is as a result of a central character flaw—the stuff of which most great novels are made—but as a result of U.S. cultural imperialism and the tendency of Canadians to buy “the hallucinations of American experience.” Interspersed with those somewhat tedious pronouncements are some genuinely funny cultural observations. Of the 1960s Gray writes, “There aren’t many eras when a mediocre person can gain notoriety simply by growing his hair.” Such lines, and a steady stream of humor, prove that although Dazzled does not quite live up to its title Gray himself has lost none of his lustre.
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