by ROBERT NIELSEN
GENIUS! A TORTUOUS ROUTE
HAMILTON REVIEWS HAMILTON
MARILYN GEAR PILLING’S
On Huron’s Shore
[Bradford, Ontario: Demeter Press, 2005, $32.24]
I always wonder how book reviews came to be written. In most cases, they were probably assigned by some editor, and the reviewers may have been paid for their efforts. In my case this one was created because the writer is my current favourite, and I am eager to share the good news about her work. If I can attract a new reader I am doing somebody a big favour.
My discovery of Marilyn Gear Pilling took a tortuous route. Her first book, short stories entitled My Nose Is A Gherkin Pickle Gone Wrong (“How cute!” I thought, grimacing.) sat untouched on our shelves for years, after my wife read it for her book club. I assumed that, as Pilling is a “local” writer, her work would be of limited interest only. How Canadian of me! But recently I checked it out, just to taste a brief sample. I was reading along and reading along and – suddenly I came upon this bit, about a young lady in a public speaking competition:
“On the day of the contest, Hilary mounted the platform and turned to face the eyes. She began to recite her memorized speech, feeling the red spread from her neck onto her face. Approaching the conclusion, she got stuck. She stared at the audience. They stared back. The ice stopped rattling in the glasses, the coughs died in the throats, finally the audience ceased to breathe as the silence stretched like pie crust rolled thinner and thinner and thinner, all of them gathered and held up in the dough, which thinned to a transparent extremity, yet would not tear and release them. Hilary does not remember how she got off the stage and can’t quite believe that she ever went back on, even in the disguise of determined psychopath.”
I knew two new things: that it wasn’t just because I love pie that I would never forget that otherworldly simile – and that I was hooked; I had a new favourite writer. I’ve had others over the years, not all of them everybody‘s cup of tea, stretching from Huxley to Salinger to Heller to Coetzee to Sebald, and most recently to bad boy Martin Amis. But I have tired of Martin, and it is time to move on. I was enthralled by Pilling’s writing, sometimes laughing raucously, at other times shocked by its raw descriptions, rushing back and forth to my wife to share a tidbit that she might have missed.
I rushed off to buy Pilling’s second volume of stories, The Roseate Spoonbill of Happiness (“How witty!“ I opined this time around.) and tore through it. How to describe the woman’s art in a word? Audacious? Outrageous? Uproarious? All of these. Or meaty? Ah, that’s the one! Hearty steak and kidney pie satisfaction with every helping. I adore the menagerie of over-the-top characters: a financial adviser ‘who remembers the names and favourite foods of even his clients’ pets’; those other parents at a school meeting, ‘a toad coupled with a monstrous housefly, both wearing small glasses down their broad noses’ (My favourite!); and the poor folks from the Bonnie Brae Nursing Home, ‘so white they look like they have been let out for recess from Hades’. Indeed, Pilling allows nothing to stand in the way of giving full vent to her powerful creative gift.
And now, Eureka! A new book of stories. I was quickly in possession of a copy, and learned from the cover that it consists of “linked stories”, but with a less quirky title this time: On Huron’s Shore. But relax, I told myself, it will do the job; it’s just that the setting may be confined to a specific county in Ontario. But there will be plenty of the usual great stuff inside.
Well, I have read the book. And it contains an abundance of riches – indeed, an over abundance, which could have easily constituted a two volume set. That is, if not for the generosity of the author, who has given it all to us at once. Thank you!
Some books – like many movies – start strongly, but soon fall away, and the ending provides a respite from the grind. This book is not like that; in fact, the core is not experienced until around page two hundred. We are attending “The Dinner Party”, a seminal narrative in which everything comes together, in a meaningful, satisfying fashion. Similar, in a sense to the novel.
The book could be labelled “novel”, a catchall for a myriad genres. It introduces at the outset a family, and follows its development over the years – their complex lives, beset with difficulties, with here and there a triumph or two. Nor are there intervening narratives which disturb that satisfying flow. Admittedly, each story is complete in itself, with an arresting introduction, an abiding theme, and a satisfying conclusion – the elements of a superior short story collection. But whatever name one wishes to attribute to this enterprise, it is a rich and engaging read.
The essence is twofold, clearly Pillingesque: first of all a bedrock of rich humour, above which the author erects a structure of unmitigated frankness. Like I say, if you are looking for literary meat ‘n’ potatoes satisfaction, Pilling’s table is always set. If it’s too rich for your blood, turn to lesser, tamer fare.
Part I, set in 1956, consists of eight stories; central is Lexie, an eleven-year-old girl, and the book is largely her story. She is not the narrator, although she will take over at the beginning of Part II, and remain in that role until the end. Initially, we have the limited point of view, but already with Lexie front and centre.
The cast for Part I consists of Lexie, her family – father James, mother Irene, eight-year-old brother Graham, three-year-old sister Vivian – an aunt, an uncle, and a cousin – and Dad’s cousin.
Much has been made of Pilling’s females; the back cover mentions “her competence in describing women…her explorations of Canadian women”. Although “competence” is understated, her painstaking “explorations” include men, especially in the initial chapters, which feature James, as strange a duck as you could meet. A small man, he has a passion for ingesting “high columns of tomatoes”: “He doesn’t look like a man who would eat eight large tomatoes in a row, then look around and ask his wife what’s for supper.” (This is the second sentence in the book and already I am laughing!)
James lives in a city in Ontario, and runs to and from work every day “in his brown suit, brown fedora and brown leather shoes.” He sprints especially fast on Friday afternoons, so he can cram his family into their Austin “no later than 4:22 p.m.” and get the hell out of town to the farm on which he was born, where his real love lies. There he enjoys the company of cousin Ephram, a fellow unique creature and permanent resident of the farm, and neighbours Aunt Bea, Uncle Tommy and daughter Ruth.
But James doesn’t enjoy hearing his wife bitch constantly about the dump she is forced to inhabit every summer weekend. James keeps his family busy following his litany of stupid rules – about just about everything (Lexie says to her brother, “You know he’s loco”, while the two of them secretly make fun of him and his rules). One favourite is his refusal to allow his kids to own a packet of gum – just the collective one: “In order to stretch the gum treat, their father has a rule. He cuts the Chiclet in half and gives one half to each of his children.”
Ephram is equally an enigma. He goes swimming in the creek with the children, “wearing his old yellow bathing suit and his boots”, and Lexie cannot fail to notice that “a mottled blue tube hangs half way to his knees”. Cousin Ruth, farm girl born and bred, provides a frank explanation. (No, the book is not for everybody, unless you are prepared for the odd shock – Lexie, for example, “shrinks” at the sight of her mother “pulling pin feathers from the rear end of a chicken.” – and, say, Aunt Bea’s back porch which “smells of manure and dog”). Yes, here is a writer of realism, who is very good at it.
And yes, farm life is trying for the family, basically city folks. Lexie awakens one night, when she “hears a muffled buzz, so close it seems to be inside her ear”. Her screams bring her mother, who strips her bed:
“Finally, she lifts up Lexie’s pillow. There, on its back, lies a huge, half-dead fly. It pedals the air weakly with its legs. Lexie screams till her face is hot and her eyes straining to pop. She screams the horror of having this fly under her pillow while she lay asleep, unable to save herself.”
Her mom’s reaction? Well, predictable by now: “‘I’m going to leave and never come back. I can’t stand this any longer.’”
In her attempt to bring everything to vivid life, Pilling has an astonishing talent for coercing her reader to use all senses. She puts you right on that farm, sharing the richness of Lexie’s rural world, especially its abundance of life. Here she is with her brother on the way to fetch the milk from Uncle Tommy:
“As she and Graham cross the log bridge, a frog honks. Below, water striders jerk on the surface of the water. She smells the black muck along the creek banks, the wild mint. Between creek and road is the rail fence, clammy wet against their bare legs as they climb over.”
In Part II, Lexie narrates a quartet of stories, as we follow the progress of the usual cast, plus others who appear willy-nilly. Moving right along, Lexie is now twenty-five, and about to head overseas in the story “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” (Remember when it was possible to do this?). It will prove a problematical adventure (for the participants, but great entertainment for the lucky reader). It is 1971, and Lexie is accompanied by husband Zack and sister Vivian, reported by Mom to be running a bit wild. The tourists arrive first in London, enduring a rare heat-wave; lying about are rows of the “whitest people” Lexie had ever encountered: “Their skin was the white of creatures who had spent their lives clinging to the damp underside of forest vegetation” (Shades of the unfortunates of the Bonnie Brae Nursing Home).
Jet-lagged, our travellers fail to relish that first meal in England, after tracking down an affordable restaurant: “We were served a dish of mucilaginous rice, chicken skin, and chicken tendon.” Mmmmm-MM! And they will quickly tire of their “evening breakfasts of fatty bacon.”
Misery continues through Amsterdam and Paris, ending in a screaming match between sisters, with attendant hair pulling and nail scratching. So much for a trip designed to wean Vivian away from a ne’er-do-well named Vern (“rough, swarthy – a woodcutter from a fairy tale”).
Immediately upon the trio’s return to Canada, Viv and Vern are once more thick as thieves. And of course Vivian marries the guy in the very next story, which the bride insists occur at the farm – which gives rise to one of the noisier and odoriferous paragraphs in Canlit:
“Vivian’s long bright train drags in the henbane, as she approaches the manicured area of grass. Billy drops the needle and the first flourish of ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ begins, scratchy and hollow-sounding. Vivian walks toward her groom, picking her way in the space between the chairs. My father is beside her, wearing a blue summer suit, his hair pasted to his head with Brylcreem. A cow on the other side of the rail fence sticks her runny nose in the air and bawls loudly. She produces a plopping rain of patties just as the minister launches on his words to the assembled guests. The aroma of cow dung mixes with the perfume of purple flox.”
Later, Vivian will choose a very different venue for her next wedding; it will not take her long to abandon her redneck and marry a fellow medical doctor. She will again divorce, and get hitched to Mike, perhaps because of the uniqueness of his laugh, reportedly out of control: “It rises two octaves in falsetto flight, beats with helpless disbelief against the aged wallpaper of the dining room ceiling, like summer moths against a screen door” (surely as metaphysical a metaphysical conceit as any metaphysical poet ever conjured).
Still in Part II, “The Discovery of the New World” has Graham visit France for two weeks and return with Pascale Beauchamps; they marry, and although she threatens to return home, they have five children instead. This tale ends with Lexie contemplating a photo of Graham’s family, her final observation quietly reminiscent of Nick Carraway on the final page of The Great Gatsby, admiring with those Dutch sailors “a fresh, green breast of the new world”: “I sit on, gazing at the picture until the figures blur and shimmer like the indistinct line of the horizon, back in the days when the earth was flat and the secret corners of the New World still wild under the shadows of the moving clouds.”
This is wonderful writing.
By the end of Part II, James, a victim of Parkinson’s, is in the Bonnie Brae Nursing Home. Lexie visits with Pascale; the former is queasy, the latter just fine as they arrive at James’ room. A memorable visit – for the most discriminating reader:
“Pascale enters first. My father is slumped in his wheelchair. Pascale zip-a-dee-doo-daws around the room, straightening and fluffing and animating. Take even a room like this, she can rev it up a few levels. Whereas I feel myself glub-glubbing in the detol-pee quagmire before I’m even through the door.”
The trio of stories in Part III continues the saga of Lexie’s relationships with her elderly parents. Always problematical, they command her attention. The book’s title story is a letter Lexie writes to her father:
“Yours was a powerful personality. All three of your children’s lives have been shaped predominantly by you. You molded us to measure ourselves by our achievements rather than who we are.”
In the face of considerable protest from Irene, Lexie sells the family home in the city and moves her to tiny Rilling, Ontario, where Irene grew up – and where Vivian has her medical practice. Rilling now becomes the centre of the action, although the ubiquitous family farm remains seminal to family life.
Part IV discloses that Mike has lasted fifteen years as Vivian’s hubby, and James and Irene are dead, prompting Lexie to remark, “I’ve noticed the significant changes that sometimes occur in people’s lives after the parents die.” How true: Vivian has hooked up with yet another guy named Mike, but hates it when her siblings refer to him as “Mike the Second”; Graham and Pascale have divorced, and he now lives alone on the farm. At the beginning of the gripping story “The Dinner Party”, Lexie talks about that farm, surely echoing the feelings of a host of other nostalgic city dwellers who originated in the boondocks:
“It’s been a powerful force in our family, so much so that I might say we never owned the farm, it owned us. It held us in thrall…My brother, my sister and I – all three of us, in our childhood, absorbed our father’s feelings for the farm. Its creek runs in our blood, its forests are part of our inner world…when I open the back door and smell straw, rubber boots, manure, old wood, ashes and the hard-packed earth of the cellar floors, it’s the smell of home…I know this landscape as well as I know my own body. Every hillock and stone holds memory and meaning.”
Is it surprising that this is the site where the three aging siblings – Lexie, Graham, Vivian – gather now? (“The dinner was my idea. I thought it might be the saving of us.”) Graham, the little brother who now has white hair, is in “the besotted stage” of his relationship with Eva, twenty years his junior – who is handling the cooking. Mike the Second is present, but Lexie’s mate and daughters are not. It may have Lexie recalling that first meal she had in England, as she pursues her penchant for pontificating upon meals that suck:
“Eva brings the trout to the table. She unwraps the fish. The skin comes off with the newspaper and the grin comes off my face. Eva slides one of the trout onto my plate. The fish is pallid, white, rubbery. Worse, it still has its head. I regard the eye. That flat, unseeing look of the dead. I’m ambivalent about fish at the best of times. My stomach lurches. I cannot eat this flaccid thing with a head and no skin and a staring glass button of an eye.”
But other than that, Lexie, what did you think of the meal?
Lexie forces her way through, helped by surreptitiously slipping chunks of fish into the serviette on her lap – haunted by a more pressing matter: “My worst fear is that the three of us – the kernel of our family that remains – will break apart, each falling into our separate lives.”
Lexie retires from her job and visits Vivian – also white-haired – in Budapest, where Mike the Second is working. There her husband David (who long ago replaced Zack) sends news of the attack on the World Trade Centre. Somehow Budapest births a couple of striking musical images: Lexie’s voice suddenly “comes out like the cracked groan of the cello Katie used to saw on when she was little”; at a Dvorak concert “in an ornate castle” she hears a coloratura soprano in full flight, whose “voice carried over the entire orchestra: the human voice the mightiest instrument of all.”
At the airport a ray of sunlight outranks the gloom. A pregnant woman, obviously terrified, standing beside Lexie places her bag on a table for inspection:
“The guard opens it. Looking up at us is a black and white cat. The guard’s big rough hand with its scraped knuckles moves forward. I stop breathing. He pets the cat gently, zips up the bag, hands it back into the woman’s keeping.”
Great relief all around. Including this reader.
We are finally in the company of Lexie’s two daughters; she is nonplussed that both, who “hate cold weather”, have moved – Julie to Montreal (“…the largest annual snowfall of any major city in the world“), and Katie to Winnipeg (“…fifty-eight days a year of minus twenty-degrees centigrade”). Katie chides her mother for posting on their kitchen door, “for all those years of their childhood”, directions on how to implement the Heimlich maneuver. That evening a “rogue mushroom” lodges in David’s windpipe and Lexie employs the Heimlich to save his life: “I broadcast that shot around my world, especially to Winnipeg and Montreal, where the long, shining icicles snapped and sang with it for the rest of the winter and the two mighty rivers could not help but giggle beneath their smooth, unreadable faces.”
It’s time for another wedding for Vivian, but this one will be different, with nary a single cow pie in sight. This transpires in a garden in Rilling around an oval swimming pool. There are even sunflowers, grown “to a ludicrous height”: “They looked like giraffes. Off with their heads I said to one of the gardeners.” This is one of a myriad intertextual references scattered throughout the text, to delight – and challenge? – the reader! For example, Lexie is expecting “the gods” to participate actively in this wedding, because Vivian has worked so hard to make it perfect that there is bound to be “trouble”: “Gloucester’s words stick in my mind: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods! They kill us for their sport’.”
Nine months before the wedding, Vivian had “conceived” her dress! Katie is back on the scene, and Lexie has set aside her own shopping style – “strike, pluck, try on, buy, depart” – to cater to her daughter, still in need of her dress. Lexie waits while the kid tries on fourteen, especially that last one which “showed several inches of cleavage”. Lexie did not approve that “the space between Katie’s neck and the top of the red dress seemed an endless white steppe”:
“I finally suggested we get a tailor to add black straps. An asphalt highway across the steppe. That did it. Katie chose the red, releasing me from the potential lynch mob of waiting women.”
But during the wedding it is not a dress that steals the show; it is the photographer’s assistant Janet, specifically her pendulous breasts: “They poke and prod from within at the thin fabric of the fitted black sweater…” Again Lexie blames the gods, who “have arranged to have a bride and an anti-bride at this wedding.”
Shortly thereafter, Eva, Graham’s lover – and his horses’ veterinarian – drops him. Distraught to the point of despair, his agony is featured in the book’s final story, “The Festival We Call Christmas”. Nevertheless, he remains eager to return to the farm and care for his beloved horses. His only saving grace is that he is with family, prompting Lexie to remark, “Imperfect as we are, messy as our lives can be, there’s comfort in being together…”
Giving rise to her fitting conclusion to a magnificent book:
“The old Christian God is in decline but still active – in Huron County at least. Outside, He continues to shovel snow from the front steps of heaven. It plops down by the bushel basket. Plops, pours, sifts, blows, beats, flows, flies, swirls. ”
“Blinds, obliterates, whitens. ”
Transforms! Yes, just the word to describe what Marilyn Gear Pilling does to the simple fundamentals of the English tongue, changing them, manipulating them, to enthrall and entrance her readership, to enable us to see the world anew, through the eyes of a no-nonsense, absolutely frank and honest literary genius.
Robert F. Nielsen is an author, and has been the editor at Potlatch Publishing since the 1970’s. Born in Vancouver, Nielsen is a graduate of the University of Alberta (B.A) and the University of Guelph (M.A.). He has taught in England and Canada, in high schools, colleges and universities, and was the first winner of The Ontario Education Association/Globe & Mail Award of Merit. Later, as an instructor in their Certificate in Writing program, he was awarded The McMaster University 2001-2002 Centre for Continuing Education Instructor Appreciation Award. His book Athlete’s Foot; or, How I Failed at Sports was a finalist for the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. He lives on the shore of Lake Ontario in Stoney Creek, Ontario.