Dilettante's Diary

Nov 16/08

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date above is the date on which the page was started. The more recent reviews will appear towards the top of the page.

Reviewed here: Happy-Go-Lucky (Movie); La Damnation de Faust (Opera); In The Land of Long Fingernails (Memoir);  Role Models (Movie); Open Water 2008 (Watercolours); So Brave, Young, and Handsome (Novel)

Happy-Go-Lucky (Movie) written and directed by Mike Leigh; starring Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Eddie Marson, Samuel Roukin, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Nonso Anozie, Karina Fernandez, Elliot Cowan.

Something gave me the impression that this was going to be a movie about a cheerful, optimistic young woman. That sounded pretty ominous. On the other hand, the movie seemed to be getting some good reviews. So maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared?

It’s much worse. In the opening scene, our heroine, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), bikes along London streets to a book store, parks outside, goes in and browses. She picks up book and, on opening it, smiles automatically. But her main business in the store appears to be to try to annoy a taciturn clerk (Elliot Cowan) with her attempts to make friendly. She says something like, "It’s nice and quiet in here, it’s crazy out there." But it clearly wasn’t crazy out there. It was a beautiful summer day and she'd had a pleasant, trouble-free ride to the store. The clerk, possibly recognizing the vapidity of the remark, doesn’t respond. She persists, bugging him with "Having-a-nice-day?" banter. Finally, she backs out of the store, wagging a finger and teasing the clerk for being so unfriendly. We’re supposed to like this woman? My sympathies were totally with him.

Then she finds her bike has been stolen. Her reponse? A wistful but unruffled: "We didn’t even get to say goodbye." And on it goes, incident after incident manifesting her relentless good cheer, all of it buoyed up by a bouncy Percy Grainger type of score. (You should take cover when the Brits are in that mood.) A tipsy sleepover with some girlfriends exposes us to a lot of inane hilarity over a pair of falsies that somebody concealed in her bra. At this point, in the attempt to manifest the sprit of a non-sexist male, I’m trying to remember that maybe I’ve tolerated locker room nonsense in movies about jocks without throwing up.

Then comes a visit to a physiotherapist regarding a pain in Poppy’s back. I’m thinking: aha! a plot is going to kick in – this is some incurable disease and we’re going to find that this girl has incredible strength beneath her cloying demeanour. But no, the back pain is solved in the twinkle of an eye and it’s on to the next up-beat encounter with whomever comes along, be it the kids in her elementary school class, her buddies, her family, her colleagues or street people.

Speaking of which, the most ridiculous scene in the movie has Poppy chumming up with a demented man she bumps into one night. While he keeps muttering a repetitive string of jibberish – "You know...you know....you know....they....they....they" our Poppy's shining eyes drink it all in, while she nods and responds "Yeah, I know." I think I get the point that Poppy is empathy personified but my appreciation of that fact is somewhat obliterated by the overriding concern: how can this chick be so stupid as to follow this hulking, filthy male into what appears to be an abandoned warehouse strewn with straw and lit with naked light bulbs????

Maybe this movie would be tolerable if you could love Poppy from the get-go. I couldn’t. I’m not sure that it’s Sally Hawkins’ fault. It may be because Mike Leigh’s script doesn’t give her much help that she’s forced to react to everything with a goofy grin and lots of mugging. Eventually, a few fragments of plot do emerge – one about a kid in her class, another about her driving instructor. And, just before the end, we do get to see another side of Poppy. Confronted with somebody having a catatonic meltdown, she becomes, at least for a moment, a calm, sensible, mature person – someone I might be able to like if I hadn’t had to sit through the preceding hour of bubbling spirits. It almost looks as though Poppy has finally grown up, except that we know she’s going to revert to her invincible good cheer pretty soon. And she does.

To give Mike Leigh his due – and there must be something good about the movie, given his remarkable contributions to the art form (Vera Drake, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets and Lies, Naked, etc) – I like the open ending. Nothing much is resolved. We’ve had a few glimpses into someone’s life, that’s all.

Most surprisingly, given the bland dreck of the main theme, there are some excellent scenes with very authentic performances along the way. The huge black man who plays the physiotherapist (Nonso Anozie) has a very reassurring presence. The driving teacher (Eddie Marson), who’s supposed to be odious, actually seems a lot more interesting than his pupil. The writing of his final speech is brilliant. A scene where a social worker meets with a troubled little kid is very touching. Everybody involved, the social worker (Samuel Roukin), the principal (Sylvestra Le Touzel), especially the kid (I couldn’t find his name) and even Poppy comes across as believable and humane. (Mind you, I think they get to the heart of the kid’s problem about 100 times quicker than anybody would in real life.) A romance that springs up produces some neat dialogue, although the repartee ultimately gets just a little too cute for my taste. Best of all are a couple of scenes in a dance class. Karina Fernandez, as a melodramatic, passionate flamenco teacher, makes an unforgettably entertaining impression.

Rating: D minus (Where D = "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)


La Damnation de Faust (Opera) by Hector Berlioz; production by Robert Lepage; design by Carl Fillion; conducted by James Levine; starring Marcello Giordani, Susan Graham, John Relyea, Patrick Carfizzi; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, November 22/08

Canadians have reason to be proud of this production. It stars Toronto-based John Relyea as Mephistopheles and Quebec director Robert Lepage works his magic on stage. If you’re going to do something unconventional and Lepage-ish with an opera, this is an appropriate one. The piece practically begs for directorial intervention. It’s pretty static for the most part, people just stand and sing; there isn’t much action or inter-action. In fact, the piece is usually given in concert form, rather than staged.

What you get from Monsieur LePage’s treatment is something of a cross between an opera and a Sound and Light show. The set piece of the decor is a tall grid at the back of the stage, divided into four levels horizontally and six sections vertically. Performers walk back and forth on the various levels as on catwalks or bridges. Most of the time, the chorus members stand rigidly in rows in a pit at the bottom of the grid, visible from just the waist up. From time to time, different sections of the grid become places like Faust’s study or Marguerite’s bedroom. Video projections turn the grid into everything from stained-glass windows to bookshelves to a grove of trees. At one point, the girders of the grid becomes crucifixes on which five nearly-nude "Christs" hang decorously.

The high-tech aspect of the show serves up one of its most striking effects when Mephistopheles is rowing Faust across the grid. Below them, thanks to film projection, is shimmering water. The boat tips, dumping Faust into the water. At that point, the film below the boat shows his body plunging into the water. There follows a filmed underwater ballet with women in white swirling about in the water, their gowns billowing like sea creatures, surrounded by rising bubbles. Another striking use of the technology comes at the point where Faust and Mephistopheles are riding on horseback to rescue (supposedly) Marguerite from prison. The video projection shows galloping horses crossing the grid in silhouette but live actors, also in silhouette, perched on railings on the grid, appear to be riding the horses and whipping them on.

As you might expect, we get some hints of Monsieur Lepage's work with Cirque de Soleil. When Mephistopheles summons the sprites to work their love-making spell, ballerinas in traditional white tutus frolic on the catwalks while topless male acrobats on guy wires fling themselves at the structure that appears to be Marguerite’s house. At another point in the show, the wires come into play as soldiers are lowered on hooks (through the crotch!) into the laps of females sitting below. A woman sitting near me commented that a "Piet" effect was apparently intended. Perhaps, except that the dead soldiers kept getting hauled up into the stratosphere and lowered again. Multiple deaths, I suppose?

Lots of invention and imagination on offer here, but what is the overall effect? While it’s impressive to watch, it’s more spectacle than involving drama. Part of that’s because of the framing effect of the grid. You feel as though you’re watching everything taking place at some remove, in a doll’s house with one wall cut out. You long at times for the principals to come forward and to interact in a way that connects more with the audience. In fact, the only point in the whole production at which I felt emotionally engaged was when Mephistopheles gloats over having won Faust’s soul. The villain's "Gotcha!" moment gave me a genuine frisson of excitement,

As Mephistopheles, John Relyea certainly was watchable, with his flashy good looks and his fit body in brownish red leather trimmed with feathers. He also sang splendidly, as did the other two principals: Marcello Giordani (Faust) and Susan Graham (Marguerite). It must be said, though, that this is one of the operas where you had to wish that the lovers were half the age and half the weight. It doesn’t matter much what Tristan and Isolde look like; after all, they drink a potion that makes them fall in love. You can even make do with a Violetta and Elfredo who look a bit lived-in. But there’s so much emphasis on Marguerite’s virginal innocence and Faust’s dream-lover appearance that you couldn’t help thinking how much better younger, fitter singers would have fit the roles, especially given that Marguerite spends most of the time in her white nightgown.

Still, the afternoon offered much to enjoy. Not being very familiar with the work of Berlioz, I found the music gorgeous, especially the lush choruses. But the program package  of this HD Live transmission didn’t have quite the excitement of some earlier ones. Perhaps we’re getting blas about it all. Susan Graham opened the show as host, then retired to her dressing room. Thomas Hampson took over the interviewing duties for the intermission, chatting with singers Giordani and Relyea first, then Ms. Graham who was in costume now. Then, thanks to a hand-held camera, we followed her up the seventy-four steps behind the grid to the spot where she had to stand for the opening of the second half of the opera.

There was another shot of Ms. Graham backstage during the short break before Part IV. Given that her big aria was coming up ("D'amour, l'ardente flamme"), she looked tense, breathing deeply and gulping water from a plastic bottle. This was the only point during all the HD Live broadcasts to date that I felt maybe we shouldn’t be getting the backstage view. It’s one thing to see the singers immediately after their big moments. But to see them psyching themselves up for the challenge? It seems unfair to them and it makes us uneasy.

As she stepped into position for the scene, though, Ms. Graham turned and gave a thankful pat on the head to the dutiful woman who had been following her every step, carrying the train of her garment and offering the water bottle. That pat on the head was one of the most delightful moments in all the backstage stuff seen so far in these transmissions.


In The Land of Long Fingernails (Memoir) by Charles Wilkins, 2008

Yes, we’re talking graveyards. Turns out well-known Canadian author Charlie Wilkins worked in a Toronto cemetery in the summer of 1969 when he was a university student. But how, you may ask, can anybody get a book out of a five-month summer job? I mean most of us can come up with a few stories from summer employment and, admittedly, a guy who worked in a cemetery might have more good yarns than most of us. But a whole book of them?

The reason Charlie Wilkins is able to pull it off is that fate presented him that summer with a cast of colourful characters as co-workers. Prominent among them are two main adversaries: Luccio, a frustrated Italian PhD student, and Scotty, the permanently inebriated and irascible boss. (Pseudonyms are used for the characters and the cemetery itself, for reasons that will be obvious to any fair-minded reader.) As seen through the wide eyes of our young narrator, the antics of his co-workers result in a coming-of-age saga. It’s all here: friendship, hatred, love, sex, sickness, bereavement. Though most of the workers maintain well-honed roles in front of each other as jerk, stoner, boozer, goof-off or egg-head, they’re ultimately forced to show some evidence of the more noble aspects of humanity. We also get touching glimpses into the homes of some members of the team.

But, given the working environment, death pervades everything. If this is the kind of thing you’re looking for, rest assurred that Mr. Wilkins dishes up some grisly details. Such revelations are more or less inevitable, what with the maintenance of graves that have collapsed and the surfacing of bones that were dumped in the "quarry" section of the cemetery, after being turfed out of their original graves long ago. We also hear about more recent illegal goings-on with the remains of loved ones as well as one court-ordered exhumation that calls for gas masks all round.

The tone isn’t all gruesome, though. We get quite a few good laughs. One of the first ones that caught me was the reference to a guy who was so cheap that he used pages of the bible to roll his reefers, with the result that he was "the only man in history to have inhaled the entire Revelation of St. John the Divine." Another very funny story involves a kid who was bringing home a kit bag packed with toilet paper which the cops insisted was a stash of drugs.

Some of Mr. Wilkins’ humour depends on verbal flourishes. You get long sentences where the writer backs up and lets fly a volley much like a coloratura singer rippling off a few arpeggios. Of two women workers in the cemetery office, he says:

Even now, there are two pathologically embittered non-men who have worked in the office since Shakespeare was a soda jerk and will continue to do so until they are laid to rest – let us say "unlaid" to rest – in their complimentary plots, in their rubberized girdles, in their prayerful hopes that existence beyond the veil will be free entirely of the human testicle-bearer, or at least the unpalatable notion of any sort of contact with the beast.


The verbal dexterity is impressive but some readers might prefer writing in which the author makes his or her points while drawing as little attention as possible to the virtuosity of the writing itself.

Which is not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this book. One of the best features of it, for me, is the vivid depiction of the working world. It has been said that literature contains very few works about what life is like for people in their jobs. This book gives you the whole picture. You get the feuds, the shenanigans, the grudges, the slacking, the corner-cutting – but most of all the daily grind and the understanding that all the other stuff is what enables people to cope with it.

You may find yourself wondering how Mr. Wilkins remembers so much, nearly forty years on. Is this the Farley Mowat type of memoir in which we have to accept that it’s often more a creative re-visiting of the past than a factual account? Worse still, the James Frey kind of memoir that’s padded with fabrications? Near the end of this book, Mr. Wilkins speaks to those questions when he explains that he started making notes about that summer job in the following year. So you can believe that most of the stuff happened pretty much as described.

Because it’s factual, though, it inevitably lacks some of the resolution that you crave. One of the relationships – perhaps the most important one – peters out in mystery and absence. That’s disappointing because the book has so many of the virtues of a novel that you want it to end like one. And it’s certainly to Mr. Wilkins’ credit that he’s stirred up that longing.

[Full disclosure: I have met Charles Wilkins, have had some email correspondence with him, and attended the launch for this book. Does that constitute a conflict of interest? You decide.]


Role Models (Movie) written by Paul Rudd and David Wain; directed by David Wain; starring Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Jane Lynch; with Kerri Kenney, Elizabeth Banks, Nicole Randall-Johnson, Ken Marino, A.D. Miles, Ken Jeong, Alexandra Stamler.

You may have noticed that we at Dilettante’s Diary occasionally indulge in movie fare that would appear to be somewhat inconsistent with our usual good taste. One genre that might come to mind would be sleazy comedies starring two male actors playing complete jerks, eg. Step Brothers, Blades of Glory, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, and Wedding Crashers.

A recent addition to that list might be Role Models, in which Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) stupidly get themselves convicted of various offences. Rather than serve thirty days in jail, they opt for 150 hours of community service. Thus they find themselves assigned as mentors to two troubled kids.

The point being, of course, that nobody could make worse mentors than these two. Wheeler, a happy-go-lucky type, has only one thing on his mind: getting laid. On the other hand, Danny has just been dumped by his live-in girlfriend. Bewildered, he protests that they’re a perfect couple because "We hate the same things." Something of a cynic, to put it mildly, he quarrels with a coffee shop barista over the fancy names the shop applies to coffees. He seems to be scouring the landscape for things to complain about. In one ornery outburst, he blurts out that he’s fed up with people using clichs like, "Twenty-four/seven" and "Been there, done that."

This character was beginning to look like my kind of guy. So I’m thinking: maybe this movie isn’t so far beneath my sophistication level, after all? In the mentorship program, Danny gets saddled with an extremely geeky kid, a young teen so totally into role-playing fantasy games that he can hardly function in the real world. It’s very interesting to watch how Paul Rudd responds to the kid’s cringe-inducing behaviour. Danny’s gotta do his best to get along with this freak, or it’s jail time. You can see Rudd’s character wanting to puke as he pulls a polite face and lets himself be dragged into the dorkey goings-on.

Of course, we know that he and the kid are going to hit it off eventually but that comes about in an engaging way. It’s particularly intriguing when Danny starts to get involved with the kid’s family. Some thoughtful stuff emerges about being yourself in a family that doesn’t approve of you. Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as the kid, doesn’t exactly steal every scene; he and Paul Rudd play off each other very well. But, as a young actor who doesn’t, let’s say, have a lot of physical assets to win us over, Mr. Mintz-Plasse deserves a lot of credit for give his inner geek full rein.

The movie swings back and forth from one mentor/kid scenario to the other, a structure that works very well. You never get tired of watching one pair before switching to the other. The situation between Wheeler and his kid, a foul-mouthed black boy about ten years old (Bobb’e J. Thompson), doesn’t offer as much to think about but both of them are competent actors, pleasant to watch. Not surprisingly, the keys to their relationship turn out to be rock music and sex talk. Frequent reference to "boobies" and "boners" effects bonding. The current trend of exposing young kids to so much explicit sexuality doesn’t sit very well with me, but Hollywood’s not listening to my complaints so I guess there’s no point belabouring them. In any case, the film-makers make sure that we find out eventually that this kid still has some innocence in him, in spite of all the crude talk.

As the director of the program that matches kids with mentors, Jane Lynch serves up some amazing work. I think it’s very possible that she’ll be nominated for an Academy Award for best woman in a supporting role. As far as I know, she’s playing a character that has never been seen on screen before, but one that deserves a special place in the showcase of annoying contemporary types. With a dazzling smile playing against her tough talk, she does a tremendous parody of the former addict who claims to have seen it all. This woman practically has an obsession with bull shitting. She’s constantly accusing our two friends of doing it to her. Sometimes her disquisitions on the subject get so tangled up that you can’t decipher any message, except that she thinks she’s pretty hot shit.

With that sort of social satire going for it, the movie keeps threatening to rise above the low-rent feel of some of the plot elements (getting stoned and passing out naked by the campfire). And the script frequently startles you with intelligent, witty lines. When Wheeler tries to pass on a life-affirming motto to lighten Danny’s spirits, Danny shoots back, "That’s no motto. That’s just you spouting a bunch of words." When an odious mom attempts a sentimental rapprochement with her son, he says, "Thanks for trying to be nice, Mom." In a real-life enactment of a fantasy battle – outdoors, with costumes, swords and all – a character comments to his assassin, "Very good. You should come back next year. Can you give me your email?" before falling dead.

References to real movie stars and entertainment personalities add a certain piquancy to the proceedings. The geeky kid says that he knows he looks like Marvin Hamlisch. Danny, the Paul Rudd character, is compared to Ben Affleck. When Danny sings a drippy love song (it doesn’t even rhyme, for godsakes!) to his estranged girlfriend who has refused to marry him, he proposes that, if she wants, they can live lovingly together without marrying, just like "Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon." I’m not exactly sure what the effect of this name-dropping is. Maybe it’s something like a sly wink, a Brechtian invitation to ease up on the suspension of disbelief: hey, we’re all just a bunch of actors, we’re just having fun here!

Rating: C (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")


Open Water 2008 83rd Juried Exhibition of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. John B. Aird Gallery, Macdonald Block, 900 Bay St., Toronto, October 28-November 21.

As usual when we are involved in a show, we have turned the reviewing duties over to our dear "Aunt Agnes McGrath", whose comments appear below without editing or revision.

Well, I think we all know why my nephew Patrick wanted me to review this show. He needs to have me let you know that, not only was a watercolour of his accepted into this prestigious show, he even won an award! That’s very nice for him and I’m sure we’re all very proud. As for his painting, "Creative Clutter", I have spoken privately to him about the fact that he should learn to draw straight lines and to keep his colours within the lines, so we won’t say anything about that here.

He probably also wants me to mention the fact that five friends of his from the Toronto Watercolour Society have paintings in this show. That’s really something, when you consider that the show usually receives over 300 submissions from around the world and only about 40 pictures are accepted. I can say without reservation that I really admire the work of these TWS members: Jeanette Labelle’s gorgeous golden pears, Alejandro Rabazo’s luminous shadow cast by a bicycle on a brick sidewalk, Richard Kalmin’s very colourful grouping of people carrying umbrellas, Dorothy Blefgen’s luscious bowl of fruit captured in her light, transparent style and Marilena Isacescu Carlea’s dramatic composition which appears to be an abstract, but when you look more closely, turns out to be a glimpse of downtown Toronto.

Among the other pictures, I was particularly impressed by Joanne Hunt’s crystal bowl on a reddish-brown background. Patrick tells me that a lot of people feel that, given the great skill demonstrated in this fiendishly difficult style of painting, this one should also have won an award. I can see what Patrick means when he talks about the "contemplative" appeal of Tara Imerson’s painting of an empty pop bottle against a farmhouse window with lace curtains. And I think I get the drift of his comments about the marvellous composition of some colourful railroad cars in Bob Pitzel’s painting. Patrick really loves a painting that looks down the tracks from a subway platform or a train station, by Keiko Tanabe, from San Diego, California. I can see that it’s a very striking composition, with excellent mastery of perspective, but I don’t quite get what my nephew means when he rhapsodizes about "the marvellous blending of pigments to evoke an urban atmosphere in a very subtle way."

But I totally get the painting "The Long Goodbye, Kingston" by Rosemary Randell, in which you see two people sitting at separate tables in a restaurant. The picture has such a brooding atmosphere that you can really feel some sort of drama going on. Murielle Leblanc’s dazzling painting of old enamel coffee pots and saucepans gleaming in the sun takes me back a bit, let me tell you. I also like very much Alan Wylie’s picture "Conversations with Myself"; that old guy sitting on his porch seems like somebody we all know. And speaking of people, the portraits by Ellen Catherwood and Jean Pederson are excellent.

Patrick says he’s especially fond of a little watercolour by Peter Leckett, which shows just the lower part of a cabin with a chair on the porch. It looks to me like the top of the painting was cut off but I suppose I’ll have to take the word of my nephew the artist when he says that it’s the arrangement of shapes that makes the picture interesting. Another little watercolour appeals to me, Julia Harris’ painting of a pigeon, so I was gratified to have it explained to me that the work exemplifies very well the art of capturing a subject in quick, fresh watercolour.

It must be admitted that it might be hard for non-artists like msyelf to fully appreciate "Point of Time – Tracadie" by Linda Kemp, the watercolour which won the A.J. Casson medal, the top award in the show. I guess it’s a landscape because there’s a mass of greenish stuff below with something that looks like a turbulent sky above. But it’s all very blurry and indistinct, with some dark and some bright blobs that represent goodness knows what. Patrick says the great appeal of the painting, for anybody who truly loves watercolours, is the way the pigments have been allowed to flow and mix on the page, to create mysterious effects. Well, I guess an artist should know.

I find that one of the paintings on display by the jurors is done in a somewhat similar style. In Ray Cattell’s "Forest Pathway", the colours blend in a way that suggests a landscape but one in which it’s difficult to get your bearings. I must say, though, that the effect of the brilliant colours is beautiful. And I have no problem with "Shoreline Shapes" by Mary Anne Ludlam, another of the three jurors. Her fresh greens and blues and yellows suggest hills and trees and water by using geometrical shapes that are almost abstract but that make you feel a burst of love for this northland of ours.

Thanks anyway, Aunt Agnes!


So Brave, Young, and Handsome (Novel) by Leif Enger, 2008

Sometimes you take a book off the library shelf, knowing nothing about it or the author. Maybe the cover attracts you, or the title. You try a few paragraphs and they seem promising. So you take it home.

As with this one. It turns out to be a tale narrated by a guy who, according to the setup, once wrote an enormously successful swash-buckling adventure novel. He’s been trying for years to come up with another, unsuccessfully. One morning, he’s sitting on the porch at his farmhouse in Minnesota, watching the river, and he sees an old guy go by standing up in a rowboat. One thing leads to another. They become pals. Our narrator joins the old guy on a trip to Mexico in an attempt to reconcile with a wife the old guy abandoned years ago.

To give the effect of this book, we’re going to have to reveal more plot than we usually do in Dilettante’s Diary. That’s because this book is almost nothing but plot. Things just keep happening. We find out that the old guy in the rowboat is an escaped train robber. (As far as I can tell, the era is never pin-pointed, but it seems to be the early 20th century.) The buddies keep having to elude a detective who’s on the old guy’s trail. At one point, they hook up with a teenager who’s looking for a new life. But their young friend accidentally kills a movie star in a fight over a woman. So the young guy becomes a fugitive. Then an enormous flood strands the other two. The detective shows up again. He gets shot and almost killed but our narrator nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, the former train robber has lit out alone.

To give the book its due, you could say it’s an example of the fine old art of spinning a yarn: things go on and on, in a very linear way, characters appear and disappear, nobody hangs around long enough to resolve anything or to show much character development. It seems to me I enjoyed a few books like this when I was a kid but it’s news to me that there’s an adult market for them now. (Of course, one of the main reasons for the appearance of this one could be the fact that, as I have learned, Leif Enger’s first novel Peace Like a River (2001) was one of Time magazine’s five top novels of the year and a New York Times bestseller that sold over a million copies.) It must be admitted, though, that I may have a bias against "road" books and movies. I prefer a story where the characters settle down somewhere and work through some stuff, rather than one in which the story-teller keeps pushing them on to the next location, the next adventure. In classical terms, maybe I go more for the Oedipus than the Odysseus type of story.

Although this novel wasn’t giving me much pleasure, I kept reading in the hopes of finding some justification for the fact that all those trees were chopped up to print it. Besides, I was afraid of quitting for fear of missing something. Lo and behold, around the 200-page mark, some good writing leapt out at me. It suddenly struck me that the author was making intelligent, perceptive comments on things. When describing some catastrophe, the narrator might say, "You would think I’d remember this more clearly....Yet what I chiefly recall are...." When he’s not sure of his facts, he gains our trust with disclaimers like, "I think that’s what he said." When he is sure of his facts, he offers striking details: "...[a] windmill screeled away in the orange breeze." He compares someone’s quiet death to a capable traveller's boarding a train. He says that someone’s persistent cough in the night was like "a curtain blowing into my sleep."

Some impressive narrative skill shows up too. One strange event, in particular, sparks your curiosity. For the next several pages, you wonder if you misunderstood what happened. It’s not until ten pages after the event that you get the explanation.

So how come I missed this quality of writing in the first 200 pages? There must have been some of it there. I can only conclude that the thin style of the story irritated me so much with its constant moving forward that it prevented me from noticing the good stuff that was scattered along the side of the road in the rapidly-changing landscape.

In the end, things do come full circle and there is a resolution of sorts. We don’t get quite the ending we were expecting. As one character says, "Endings are rarely what we wish." But we get realism about issues like love and forgiveness. The author – unexpectedly, to me – turns out to have some worthwhile things to say about family, marriage and getting along with people.

But what’s with that title? I can’t see who it refers to, unless the young desperado that the two men picked up along the way. That younger man wasn’t the major character in the story. And yet, there was something fascinating about him. He was secretive, impulsive, romantic, desperate and yet always polite and respectful. In spite of his relatively minor role, his character seems to have made the strongest impression on me. So maybe he deserves top billing, after all.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com