Levitating over the Abyss

What happens to a couple when the bottom falls out.

Middle-class families are haunted by their origins—or rather by the fear of falling back into them. Back into the labouring job, the hardscrabble farm, the shame of lower status. This is often not a conscious fear but flits atavistically in the background of domestic life, part of the generalized anxiety that expresses itself in the chafings of marriage and worries over the kids’ future. The solid middle class is forever levitating over an abyss.

This is particularly true these days, when major shifts in the economy have cut so many loose. In North America, the middle class’s share of national wealth is shrinking, as the numbers of both rich and poor increase. The resulting polarization of society has been much commented on: it is bad for general financial health, social stability and democracy. But long before this came to notice, young middle-class families were struggling in a way their parents did not have to. In the decades after the Second World War, a single salary could buy a house and car. A certain leisureliness prevailed, compared to the manic, two-income juggling act that sustains so many families today. We may be accumulating more toys, and certain economic indicators may be rising, but our so-called success is increasingly draining life of its savour.

Canadian literature has been slow to address these issues. Our fiction prefers the intimate close-up: the treatment of character in the context of individual isolation or the crucible of family relationships. Reflections of a wider economic reality are mostly incidental, if they appear at all. Yet it is not as if the literature of the English-speaking world is short of examples. From Jane Austen to John Updike, there have been plenty of novelists willing to explore the zeitgeist of capitalism: to mine the deep, productive vein of what money or the lack of it does to people, how it inspires and inflates and haunts and releases them—to whole new kinds of freedom, whole new levels of avariciousness and care. It may be that a society has to reach a certain level of sophistication before its literature can approach such issues in a full-blooded way: before it can take society, and not just the lonely individual, seriously. Mordecai Richler and Mavis Gallant have occasionally trod this ground, along with a few others. But where are our comprehensive comedies of class and striving, our examinations of tragic greed, comparable to what can be found in the work of so many English and American novelists, popular and literary alike?

Waiting for Joe by prairie novelist Sandra Birdsell is a solid attempt to address our lack. It is a realistic novel about a middle-class Winnipeg couple, Joe and Laurie Beaudry, who have come to the edge of the abyss. In fact, they have fallen over its edge, and are now teetering on the ledge that has broken their fall part way down: the Regina plaza where they have parked a mobile home that does not belong to them, in an increasingly desperate flight from their creditors. Joe’s business selling recreational vehicles, which once yielded an income of $125,000 a year, has gone belly up. They have lost their house and, as the novel opens, are close to losing their marriage.

Their situation is not the result of any wider economic downturn, not that Birdsell mentions; the Beaudrys are just one of the many casualties of a system that churns out winners and losers with equal alacrity. Joe has not run his business well, it seems, and maybe they have spent too much, so the moralistic might say they have only themselves to blame. But the real point is not that they’ve fallen on hard times, but that their past lives are full of missed opportunities and evasions—a hollowness that for a while their material success has papered over. Now that they are poor, the rot, as well as some of their sterling qualities, can show. Money can only save us from ourselves for so long.

There is a pathos about Laurie. After Joe disappears one morning—she will discover he has abandoned her—she impulsively spends nearly $90 on second-hand clothes, an act that, considering their situation, is seriously self-destructive. But Laurie cannot have children and has no career, and shopping has always filled the void. Their trailer is already crammed with clothes, many of which she has never worn, and as she waits for Joe, she broods on the house they have lost, its vividly coloured rooms crammed with the trophies of past expeditions to the malls. Possessions are the mirror that tell her who she is, and with that mirror shattered, and her husband gone for good, she feels the ground giving way beneath her.

Because Joe has a more physically active role in the novel—he is hitching to Fort McMurray in the hopes of a job—his chapters are more dramatically compelling. There is a sense of futurity and possibility as he falls in with various characters on the road. But like Laurie, he is also intensely involved with a detailed exhumation of his past. We learn about his mother’s drowning when he was a boy, about his adolescent involvement with a treacly-sincere American evangelist and about his troubled friendship with Steve, an Indian with whom Laurie once had an affair—a detail we learn only from Laurie’s own ruminations. In fact, the novel moves as determinedly backward as forward, often breaking away from some dramatic confrontation to segue deeply into the past, a narrative choice that too often dissipates tension even as it digs into the secrets of its characters.

The voice of Waiting for Joe is flat, factual, as steady as a rifle sight lowered to the target. It is a book of considerable integrity, and while one wishes that it told less and dramatized more, by its second half it musters a convincing weight. In the end, it leaves an impression that any life dedicated to consumption is at terrible risk: a house built upon sand if ever there was one. The rule of capitalism, for all the mild socialistic safeguards we have erected, is toxically capricious. As a generator of wealth, and as a destroyer of lives, it is equally potent. The rich have often credited their success to their own virtue and blamed those who fail for lacking it. Perhaps they are right, although not necessarily to their credit. As it follows Laurie through the malls and second-hand stores of poverty row, Waiting for Joe offers a more subtle picture, and a bleaker one, of a system that needs failure—the grinding down of lives at the bottom of the system—as much as success.

But the novel also demonstrates that we are not simply what we own, for it occasionally strikes a redemptive note. When Birdsell—usually looking through Joe’s eyes—offers a rare glimpse of the natural world, a breath of fresh air enters the story. “As he walks, the sky seems to grow darker, the stars white and brittle. He senses the Rocky Mountains in the dryness of the wind blowing in his face and imagines the undulation and thrust of stone, the long, gradual ascent of the highway, straight and rising for miles into the mountains.” In an instant, the world of getting and spending that provides the leverage point of this novel vanishes. In its place, we glimpse the larger world, more complex, more nourishing, tragically threatened, on which the rest depends.