When I was writing my most recent novel, my father asked me what I was working on, and before I could answer, he said, “I hope it’s not another book about me.” It did not strike me until that moment that all stories—at least all my stories—have his presence looming over them. My father was an easy target, a larger-than-life character whose movements my two brothers and I watched and sometimes mocked. He once told the three of us, “I didn’t have children—I had critics.” And when he passed on not long ago, the second parent to do so, I realized something more important: that he and my mother had been blocking our view of mortality for us.
Both David Homel’s Midway and Norman Ravvin’s The Joyful Child are about exactly these things: fathers and sons, the meaning of life, the inexplicable hold of love upon us and mortality—our fear of it, our flight from it. Both stories feature men whose fathers have played a significant role in their lives and who are doing their best with their own sons, consciously separating the experiences in their own upbringing that helped them from those that hurt them.
David Homel’s protagonist, Ben Allan, has crashed on the shoals of middle age only to realize that “getting old is not for wimps.” Ben is a college professor who has written a prize-winning essay about dromomania, the desire of men (mostly) to leave it all behind and hit the road. While Ben would never take such a risk, he is midway in his thinking between appreciating what he has going for him—a good marriage, a reasonable job, a strong constitution—and wanting some kind of adventure. So he is attracted to Carla McWatts, the young communications officer at his Montreal college who interviews him about his prize. While Ben is willing to drive Carla home and even accept an invitation up to her apartment, he is not able to carry out the deed. Unlike his philandering colleague, Willis Barnstable, Ben is midway between lascivious desire and loyalty, quickly realizing that his need for adventure, his own version of dromomania, will provide him with little more than “a few days of confused freedom.” He is also midway between his old cantankerous father, Morris, and his remote brother Howard, who will contribute financially to his father’s welfare but will have little to do with him personally. Ben is midway between his wife Laura’s desire to discipline their son, Tony, for watching too much TV and his own yearning to be Tony’s pal, to sit with the young man regardless of what he is watching. Ben knows that the way “parents lose their children [is] by forgetting they had childhoods too.” He is midway between accepting his lot in life and rejecting it. The frequent refrain is “I know no peace. But have no cause for war.”
Ben is also midway between understanding “the sorcery of art” and the agony of its creation. He is smart enough to know that “writing is an ungrateful monster. Instead of being happy just to exist, it demands more and more of the creator’s being.” He is a “psycho-tourist.” He yearns to know the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men and women but is afraid to confront our true “secret longing for [death].” He fears old age, “all nose hairs and moles, quivers and twitches and tangents,” and can see from his frequent visits to his father that an old-age home is merely “the antechamber of death.” But he has come to know his father well enough to appreciate that “family was the only subject going” and that Ben should look no further than his own home, with his own wife and child, for life’s riches.
The household portrayed in Norman Ravvin’s The Joyful Child starts on its troubles earlier than does the Allan family in Homel’s novel. Paul, a music critic, marries Mary, eventually a radio administrator, and they have one child, Nick. The marriage soon sours for no obvious reason other than occasional disagreements and boredom. Suddenly the future loses its certainty: “This late night upset brought them back to themselves … It brought them back to their love for Nick, in his innocence and open-heartedness. And to the awareness, in the dark, with the owl calling to them from the treetops, that they had no idea what came next.”
Mary soon leaves, and Paul is determined to be a better father than his own, who left him and his mother when he was young. The memory of abandonment calls out to Paul like a clarion: “He remembers the night his father did not come home. A casserole was baking in the oven. It smelled cheesy. Oniony. One of those childhood smells that makes the whole world seem right.” But “when he woke up the next morning, sun pouring in around his canvas window blind, he heard his mother crying in the front room. She wore the clothes she’d had on the day before.”
Even more than Ben Allan in Midway, who believes that “a few stark choices … set out the rest of our path,” Paul fears that having the knifeblade of abandonment wedged in a family’s heart might determine its course, that some families might have a certain “gene,” a “special predilection, the way some do for disease or baldness,” that there is no escape from this inevitability.
So Paul tries extra hard to commune with his young son. Being together gives a whole new joy to life. Paul takes Nick on long drives during which the
whole mundane countryside took on a magical glow. Dead-looking farms and ruined little outhouse buildings, rows of snowbound cars and trucks, the scrubby southern Ontario tree line, all grew more beautiful as the sunlight settled lower on the land. In these final few minutes, with the sun a fiery line on the horizon, the car full of its molten light, Paul felt he would cry, but the sight of Nick’s sleeping face in the rear-view mirror, pitched sideways, the colour of prairie wheat, unaware of the blaze they were driving into, changed his mind and he laughed out loud.
The trouble is that Paul has a recurring dream in which he drives an old car past familiar houses, like the “past going by,” even if the past is unbidden and unwanted. It is through Nick that Paul remembers the pleasure of his own childhood, even as his grandmother warns that the “body and time cover it up” in adulthood. Thoughts of a missing mother for Nick and a departed father for Paul circle over Ravvin’s narrative. Paul must pass on the precious E harmonica his own father gave to him because legacies come with good genes and bad ones, good memories and darker ones.
David Homel and Norman Ravvin have both written novels whose truths derive from their protagonists’ sense of mortality, their drive to make something of a life that is sure to end. There is something clear and fundamental about their meditations, philosophical in the case of Homel, even primal in the case of Ravvin.