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July 14/12

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Reviewed here: Canada (Novel); Magic Mike (Movie)

Canada (Novel) by Richard Ford, 2012

You live in a small, pleasant country that’s not a major player on the world stage, at least, not in comparison to the gigantic country next door. But one of that country’s pre-eminent authors pays you and your fellow citizens the compliment of naming his latest novel after your homeland. Is there any chance you’re not going to be interested? Even if you kinda suspect that he might not be painting your country as a Shangri-La, you’re going to read that novel. And for this particular reader, the book includes a big surprise on the penultimate page: his birthplace gets a mention. I’ll bet that’s the first time Sarnia has made an appearance in a major piece of American fiction.

But there are lots of other good things about this book.

We start out in 1960 in Great Falls, Montana, where fifteen-year-old Dell lives with his twin sister, Berner, and their parents. (As narrator of the book, Dell’s looking back on all this from today’s perspective.) This is one of those books where the situations are so interesting that a reviewer would like to pass over any specific details for the sake of letting you discover it all for yourself. But Dell tells you about the main event on the first page, so there’s no point in our being coy about it here: his parents robbed a bank and went to prison for it.

Of course there’s a tremendous amount of fascinating narrative about how they came to that point of desperation. To begin with, in Dell’s view, his mom and dad weren’t a good match. His dad was gregarious, good-looking, and something of a feckless, happy-go-lucky guy. He’d been in the air force during the war and that somehow instilled in him a sense that the government would look after a good guy like him. He’d met Dell’s mother at a party where war heroes were being welcomed home. As a result of their one-night-stand, she became pregnant and they decided to get married.

Not a good idea, according to Dell. His mom, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, was serious, intellectual and well-educated. She’d pictured her future as involving higher education, writing poetry and kibitzing with other intellectuals, not bouncing around from one military base to the other, having nobody to socialize with other than people she saw as inferior. Frequently, Dell makes the point that it would have been better if his parents had decided to go their separate ways.

But they didn’t. On discharge from the military, the dad had tried various selling jobs (cars, real estate) that didn’t work out very well; he’d gotten into a scam that went awry and that led to his owing a lot of money to some unsavoury characters who threatened to kill him and his family. Hence the robbery of a bank in North Dakota. Dell's mom agreed to drive the getaway car for two reasons: 1) the dad was threatening to take Dell along otherwise; and 2) she hoped a good haul would help launch her on a new life of her own. (Dell knows this because he eventually had access to his mom’s journal.) Unfortunately, though, the couple only netted a couple thousand dollars. And it didn’t take more than a few days for the law to catch up with them. Seems that strangers in a small western town were more noticeable than the novice robbers thought.

As their parents were being carted off to jail, Dell and Berner’s mother told them to stay home and wait for a friend of hers who would make arrangements for them. By the time the woman arrived, only Dell was still in residence, as Berner had lit out with her boyfriend. Dell accepted the woman’s ride to Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, where her brother, who owned a small-town hotel, had agreed to look after Dell, keeping him a safe distance from the Montana authorities who’d be looking for him with a view to bunging him into an orphanage.

That’s more plot than we like to reveal here at Dilettante’s Diary, but you need to know how the book gets its title. The second half of the book, covering just a few months, tells about Dell’s strange experience working for the oddball who was the brother of his mom’s friend.

As you may have guessed, the story is about as engrossing as they get. Charles Dickens convinced us all that there’s nothing so engaging as the tale of a kid forced out into the world to fend for himself or herself. Not that Mr. Ford lays on the pathos the way his illustrious predecessor might have. Still, you can’t help being struck by the fact, often mentioned, that Dell has brought with him all his possessions in a pillow case with a lacy edge. But the main virtue of Canada isn’t plot. It’s the way it shows the development of a teenage boy’s sense of himself vis vis his parents, and his sense of his place in the world. In fact, the first part of the book could be considered a study of family relations. Consisting of short, succinct chapters, the book moves very slowly. The actual robbery doesn’t come until nearly page 100. Meanwhile, there aren’t a lot of scenes that you could picture in a movie. There’s very little dialogue. Mostly, we’re hearing what Dell thinks about what’s going down.

But when Mr. Ford does give us a fully-fleshed scene with all the trimmings, it’s a dilly. One standout would be the time when the cops come knocking at the door for Dell’s parents. The cops are friendly and folksy, gradually working their way around to the handcuffing business in a genial way. As they’re leading the mom out the door, though, she expresses her concern about the kids, making the point that they’re still hers. "You might’ve considered that," the cop says. "They belong to the State of Montana today." That line stabs your heart like an icicle.

Apart from the robbery and some violence at the end of the book, sensational events are few. Even a shocking sexual incident is handled judiciously. I know there’s a prize out there somewhere for the worst sex scenes in contemporary writing but I don’t know whether there’s any award for the best treatment of a sexual situation. This one has decidedly cringe-making potential, but Mr. Ford delivers it with such class that it deserves some kind of award. After placing the two characters together in bed, he has Dell say:

And that’s enough to tell. It doesn’t bear repeating. It meant little, what we did, except to us, and only for the time.

In any case, it’s not the titillating stuff that matters here, but Dell’s perceptions. Time and again, I’m amazed at the acuity of them. Regarding his parents’ demeanour leading up to the robbery, he says: "...I’m intrigued by how ordinary behavior exists so close beside its opposite." And he has this to say about life around home following the robbery, before the cops came to call: "How amazingly far normalcy extends; how you can keep it in sight as if you were on a raft sliding out to sea, the stitch of land growing smaller and smaller." He had only the slightest inkling that something was amiss:

The only thing I was conscious of was a sensation – and I couldn’t have described it – of movement taking place around me. Nothing was visible at the surface of life, and it was the surface of life that I knew about. But children in families have this sensation of movement. It can signify someone is taking care of them, that things are being invisibly looked after, and nothing bad is likely to happen. Or it can mean something else. It’s the sensation you have if you’re brought up right – which Berner and I thought we were.

And in a similar vein:

The prelude to very bad things can be ridiculous...but can also be casual and unremarkable. Which is worth recognizing, since it indicates where many bad events originate: from just an inch away from the everyday.

About his dad’s sad decline in the aftermath of the crime, he says: "He was becoming who and what he was always supposed to be. He’d simply had to wear down through the other layers to who he really was." Dell notes, though, that family members never know each other fully. This thought comes to him when reading the journal that his mother kept in prison. He felt he was hearing her true voice for the first time. "The same must be true with all parents and their children. You only know a part of each other."

The best of what Dell has to offer, however, is insight into his own character and how it’s changing. Here’s what he says about his solitary walks around Fort Royal, studying the town:

I did this both because it was new for me to be alone and not looked after; and also because the little that was there made what I saw more striking, and I’d decided the way not to be forlorn and plagued by morbid thoughts was to investigate and take an interest in things the way someone would whose job was to write about it for the World Book.

One of the things Dell notices a lot is smells. Hardly two pages go by in the book without some reference to olfactory sensations. I don’t know whether that’s a sign that Mr. Ford is more sensitive in that respect than the rest of us but I reckon that it’s probably a fair representation of a teen’s response to the world around him.

Inspite of Dell’s valiant efforts to keep his spirits up, he has alarming intimations of how things have changed within him:

...I was not exactly who I’d been before: a well-rounded boy on his way possibly to college, with a family behind him and a sister. I was now smaller in the world’s view and insignificant, and possibly invisible. All of which made me feel closer to death than life. Which is not how fifteen-year-old boys should feel.

Throughout his saga, some of the more profound mysteries Dell habitually contemplates pertain to what you might call metaphysical matters: questions of being, the relationship of past to present and so on. Here’s a startling statement about some of the drek he went through : "....it’s wrong to wish away even bad events, as if you could ever have found your way to the present by any other means." He often wonders how much ideas count as opposed to what actually happens. His dad had a saying to the effect that it’s physical events that matter most. The adult Dell comes to this rather bleak conclusion: "I believe in what you see being most of what there is, as I’ve taught my students, and that life’s passed along to us empty. So, while significance weighs heavy, that’s the most it does. Hidden meaning is all but absent."

While those kinds of thoughts of Dell’s constitute the heart of the book, there’s no denying the incidental pleasure, for Canadian readers, in the various comments on our character and the nature of our country. An older woman who befriends Dell in Fort Royal tells him:

"Canadians always want everybody to like it here. And us – especially to like us.....But. Then when you do like us, we’re suspicious it might be for the wrong reasons. America must be a lot different. I have a feeling nobody much cares down there.... Doing things for the right reasons is the key to Canada."

American sportsmen who came to Fort Royal for hunting, says Dell, "seemed to think Canada, although comical, was mysterious and romantic, and where they lived was boring and corny, yet they still wanted to live there." The hotel owner who’s supposed to be looking after Dell has also fled America and he tells Dell: "It’s not a simple chore to live up here....I’ve never liked it. Canadians are isolated and in-grown. Not enough stimulation." Later, as a teacher in Windsor, Ontario, Dell tells us that his colleagues are very supportive of his position on the question of his nationality: "Canadians think of themselves as natural accepters, tolerators, understanders."

Enjoyable as the book is, I do have to flag a few problems.

The first has to do with matters of style and grammar. At times, you have to wonder what version of English the narrator is speaking. He refers to "beef" i.e. cattle, in the plural as "beeves" – a usage I’ve never encountered. Nor have I ever heard a native English-speaker say something like: "What I feared was that he and our mother had decided to go apart." Surely, "to separate" or "to part" would be used. Sometimes Dell’s use, or non-use, of prepositions can be very idiosyncratic, as when he says: "...when I arrived to Canada." Shouldn’t it be "arrived in Canada"? In several places he tells us that someone "went in" a room. Wouldn’t the normal usage be "went into" a room? At one point, Dell says: "The Lutherans’ Sunday bell had waked me up." Wouldn’t a literate person like Dell say that the bell "had awakened me"? The syntax of some sentences is impenetrable, as in: "Outside was bright sunshine, but in my room was shadows and cool." And this, following a summary of questions Dell wants to ask the hotel owner about his past: " – all facts I knew about my parents and was the way, I believed, you learned things in the world."

Frequently, a statement beginning with "though" stands alone as a sentence when it’s actually a subordinate clause that should be linked to the main one by a comma. For instance: "I got my hands to the dashboard just in time. Though I pitched out of my seat onto my knees and my heart started pounding." (And yet, the author occasionally uses a "though" clause correctly, as in: "The sun baked my hair and my shoulders and stung my eyes, though the hairs on my arms were cold and prickly.") We get the incorrect use of a plural verb with a singular subject: "Everyone had stopped drinking years ago, and were now waiting." And doesn’t the narrator, who, after all, tells us that he is a high school English teacher, know about the objective and the subjective forms of the pronoun ‘who’? Not that I want to be all school-marmish here about grammar rules. But, when such a distinguished writer as Mr. Ford gives us an educated, intelligent character mangling English this way, we have to ask whether he’s telling us that there are no guidelines anymore. Does anything go now, grammatically speaking?

The more serious problem with the book, and one that I find very disappointing, is what you might call the dramatic pivot of the second part of the book. It all depends on Dell’s involvement with the weird guy who’s supposed to be looking after him. That necessitates our finding out about the guy’s mysterious past. This takes some fifteen pages of another character's telling Dell the story. At that point, for me, the momentum of the book suddenly stops dead and never fully recovers. The problem is that everything that happens to Dell from now on depends on this man who’s in charge of Dell’s life and yet Dell doesn’t really have a significant relationship with him. The man mostly ignores Dell. Their brief encounters, for the most part, are charged with enigma and confusion. The bewildered Dell sums the guy up: "He wasn’t consistent, the way I was used to people being."

As result of this confusion, Dell passes through what follows in a fairly passive way; he’s not acting as an agent in his own destiny. And the solution to his big problem comes, not from his own striving, but from an adult who befriends him. Without wanting to get all pedantic about literary theory, I’d have to say that, responding to the book on the gut level, it was Mr. Ford’s decision to have Dell’s future shaped in this way – rather than having Dell grab the reins and control his own fate – that prevented this from being one of the best novels I’ve ever read.


Magic Mike (Movie) written by Reid Carolin; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn, Olivia Munn

Trust me, I honestly believed that this movie would have something to offer other than the sight of male strippers displaying their buff bodies. What that something might have been – or so the hype had led me to believe – would be interesting stuff about the lives of the guys involved in that world.

Not that some of that didn’t emerge. But it amounted to about five percent of the overall package of cornball and cheese.

Magic Mike (Channing Tatum), the star in this team of male strippers based in Tampa, has a day job as a roofer. Quite an enterprising guy, Mike also runs some sort of repair service, but his real passion is carpentry and he’s saving up to start his own custom-made furniture business. (In interviews, Mr. Tatum has made much of the fact that, although the movie isn’t based on his life, the role does enable him to call on his experience as a stripper before he became an actor.) One day on the job – the roofing job, that is – he befriends a newcomer named Adam (Alex Pettyfer). When Adam’s car breaks down at the end of the working day, Mike offers him a ride, which leads to Mike’s inviting Adam to accompany him to the strip club that night. Adam’s pressed into service handing props to the strippers as they go onstage. When one of the performers has a spell of the vapours, Adam’s pushed into the limelight.

Do you think maybe the club owner realizes that Adam "has something"? Do you think maybe a Star is Born? Do you think that Adam’s gonna find that the lifestyle of a stripper isn’t exactly wholesome? Do you think maybe drugs might turn out to be in play?

In other words, have you ever seen a movie?

Apparently, most of the people in the audience that this movie’s appealing to – teen females – haven’t. Over and over, they respond with fond enthusiasm to the tritest, most commonplace movie devices. At one point, Mike and Adam are driving over a bridge after a night of fooling around. Mike stops the car, gets out and does a flip off the bridge into the water below. Adam does too. As they’re bobbing around in the water, he suggests to Mike that the two of them should be friends. At which declaration, a wave of warm, loving laughter sweeps through the audience of benevolent teens.

I’m harder to please. Not that Mr. Tatum isn’t likeable enough in this role, even though, as far as I can tell, it’s almost the same one he played in 21 Jump Street. He has it mastered now: the hunky, aw-shucks, big brother type who’s just skirting the clich of the dumb-ox. (Mike says that a psychology student who did some research on the dancers was "analysizing" them.) But Mr. Pettyfer, bringing nothing to the role of Adam other than a pretty face and a decent bod, makes a far less effective foil to Mr. Tatum than Jonah Hill did.

Apart from Matthew McConaughey as the wondrously sleazy club manager, the only person of interest in the movie other than Mr. Tatum, is Cody Horn in the role of Adam’s sister. He lives with her and she’s skeptical about the stripping business in a big way. It kinda looks like she’s supposed to become the love interest for Mr. Tatum but she manages to give the impression that she’s almost one-hundred-percent impervious to his charm. In particular, she’s not impressed with his dubious fulfilment of his promise to watch out for Adam.

It’s a role that you would have thought would go to an older, more mature-looking actress; Ms. Horn actually seems too young for it. A cynic might say that, given the fact that she’s the daughter of Warner Bros. President Alan F. Horn, it might not have been too hard for her to get an audition. But she proves herself well worthy of the assignment; her amazingly truthful, authentic presence on screen compels your attention in all her scenes. One of the best pay-offs of her implacable stoicism is the scene where Mr. Tatum, trying to explain himself to her, gets to do a great speech of fumbling, inchoate inarticulacy.

But the rest of the movie’s filled with ersatz substitutes for reality. Who could believe that a newcomer would be given the job of handling props – without any rehearsal – in a complicated show? And how could a dancer suddenly announce one night that he’s performing a new dance, complete with elaborate props and equipment, as a total surprise that none of the group has ever seen before? Further in the direction of fantasy land, the dancers’ dressing room/green room is so attractive that I doubt the stars at the Metropolitan Opera ever get such bright, commodious, clean and comfortable accommodation backstage. And Mike’s bachelor pad on the ocean? It’s a luxurious spread that would do George Clooney proud, never mind that Mike’s scrimping to save money. It’s as though the movie doesn’t want us to see how grubby and insalubrious the arrangements in any such situation in real life would be. The decor, then, is part of the scheme to make us hang on to the illusion that these male strippers are really nice guys in spite of it all. Otherwise, how would the movie draw in all those adoring teen females? Same could be said of a druggy scene that looks like it’s heading in a homoerotic direction until it suddenly stops abruptly and meaninglessly.

Where the movie takes a complete departure from reality, and where I take my leave of the movie, is when it comes to the dancing and the club. Am I to believe that these scrappy young guys are going to endure the rigorous training and rehearsal that would produce routines with such extremely elaborate choreography and acrobatic display? I’ve heard of a group of male exotic dancers called the Chippendales, and I gather that this is something like what they do. But a Google search informs me that the Chippendale outfit is a highly-sophisticated, slick organization with its own theatre in Las Vegas. You can see how they could afford to hire and train real pros, not guys who have day jobs as roofers.

And what about all those hysterical women packing the Tampa place night after night, screaming their heads off at the sight of some bare male asses, and throwing mega bucks at the owners of those posteriors? The dancers aren't even totally naked, for heaven's sake; a trusty thong protects each guy's modesty. Is it possible that women can react with such Pavlovian insanity in a time when nudity’s so prevalent on the Internet? My instinct tells me that this is another case where the movie’s trying to put something over on me. How can Steven Soderbergh, the director of such masterpieces as his two movies about Che Guevera, perpetrate such a lie? But then....there’s that theatre in Las Vegas. So maybe Mr. Soderbergh’s telling me the truth about something going on out there. In which case, his movie makes for not so much an enjoyable comedy as a very depressing comment on humanity.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a "rating"): bare bums barely bearable

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com