Plots are as much subject to the vagaries of fashion and taste as anything else. Some seem to have a definite shelf life (if you are working furiously on a novel about a Parisian time traveller’s wife you should probably stop; that ship has sailed) and others disappear because they cease to be plausible (it is sobering, for example, to contemplate how much of Shakespeare turns on questions that can be easily dispensed with by DNA testing). On the other hand, there are plots that have been with us always and are with us still, those that manage to capture something essential about the human condition. Those having to do with growing up or falling in love, or the birth and the death of our children or our parents. And, of course, there is the old story about an old man, alone, at the end of his life, enraged and not willing to make the graceful, silent exit that the young seem to think would be appropriate. “An aged man is but a paltry thing,” writes Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,” “A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.”
It is the subject of the old man trying to sing that David Penhale takes up in his debut novel, Passing Through. It tells the story of Daniel Foster—Foster, as he insists on being called by everyone, including his granddaughter—who is marooned in Toronto after a long and successful stint abroad. When the novel begins he seems a justifiably vain man. Innovative and adaptive, possessed of considerable technical knowledge and also a certain degree of charm, he has amassed a fortune by shepherding technological change into the Middle East. “In the Arab world,” the narrative informs us, “his Canadian temperament had been his stock-in-trade … Canadians have a calming effect, like goats stabled with nervous horses.” He has suffered, however, a temporary setback and had no choice but to return to Canada, without a job or the Mercedes to which he has grown accustomed. “The sheiks,” he reflects, “had cut him loose.”
Still, he is unworried. His plan is to take his money and retire to Thailand, where he will live out the rest of his days in luxury, far from the madding crowd. What has to be done first, though, is to extricate his investments from his bank in the Middle East. This will take time, and so he finds himself having to move in with his daughter, Mary, a single mother, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Shawna. It is only temporary, he assures them, and tells himself that it is just as well; Toronto, he discovers, has become bland and pedestrian, disappointing after glittering Dubai.
But then, the bad news arrives:
The sooner he was in Thailand, the better; he had had his fill of Canada. Foster snapped open a bag. The Toronto Star came gliding down the conveyor belt. The headline read, MIDDLE EASTERN BANK GOES UNDER.
There was a picture of a bank tower.
The tower was in Dubai
The bank was Ameb.
All at once, Foster realizes that his fortune, like his storied past, like his vast managerial and technical expertise, is worth almost exactly nothing.
This is the story that occupies Penhale for the rest of the novel, which moves its main character in a workerlike manner through a series of confrontations with the reality of his new circumstances. A man who has made a living from making algorithms productive, Foster sees his dilemma as a sort of math problem: “Foster has zero dollars in his pocket. He owes several thousand dollars to credit card companies. His granddaughter baffles him. His daughter has an annoying boyfriend. Let x equal … what, exactly?”
One of the key variables he must manage involves Mary, a woman with a checkered past that she does not want to disclose fully to her father and who is involved in a dysfunctional, perhaps abusive relationship with a loser named Tyler. Idiotic (he proposes one failed business venture after another during the course of the novel), nauseatingly Canadian (he is a Maple Leafs fan) and unreliable, Tyler seems to Foster to be precisely the wrong man for his daughter. But can he tell her? Should he tell her? What does a father do in such a circumstance?
These are difficult, perhaps unanswerable questions, and Penhale gives admirable space for them to unfold in their full complexity, to be shaped as real problems that do not present any clear or easy solution. Foster is sensitive and perceptive enough to know this, and so he often finds himself fuming, contemplating violence. “As he walked up the street,” we are told, “Foster tried to recall another occasion when strangling a man with his bare hands had seemed a reasonable course of action. Nothing came to mind.” Penhale renders the situation in such a way as to make Foster’s rage seem entirely credible—and particularly striking because it issues from Foster, a man who had seemed so urbane and in control just a few pages earlier.
Foster also finds himself having to negotiate a relationship with his granddaughter. Here is an exchange from the beginning of the novel when Foster broaches with Shawna the fact that he is going to be around for a while:
“As it turns out, I’m going to be staying with you a while longer. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, young lady?”
“Oh my goodness gracious yes.”
Fair enough, Foster thought. He had pitched that too young. “We could spend some time together. Get to know each another.”
“Want me to start calling you Grandpa?”
Grandpa. The idea filled him with horror.
It is a passage that shows us Penhale’s skill as a novelist—the ability to catch those fleeting, telling moments where people talk to and past one another.
Foster’s status as a grandpa gets an ironic twist when he, at the behest of his granddaughter, finds a job at a store called Grandpa’s Toolbox, a parody of Home Depot that puts a premium on customer service. Grandpa’s Toolbox’s staff is composed exclusively of old men—they are actually called grandpas—who offer an image of comfort and trustworthiness to the intimidated customers who wander into the store confused in the midst of a complicated home repair. Who do such people want to consult with? A grandpa, of course, who both knows everything and is incapable of deceit. Once hired, Foster finds himself travelling by bus to Florida so that he might attend “Grandpa Camp.” There he undergoes a certain amount of technical training (the grandpas are taught the sorts of things which they, as grandpas, are supposed to know already) and is ruthlessly schooled in the bogus corporate philosophy.
This broadly comic, satirical middle of the novel links up with its opening pages that are focused on the demise of the Ameb Bank and Foster’s relative position within the complex world of globalized capitalism. The opportunism of Grandpa’s Toolbox, which employs the desperate and the disenfranchised—people like Foster—bears a family resemblance to the people who ran Ameb and gambled away the fortunes of—people like Foster. They are, Penhale seems to be suggesting, two sides of the same coin, and the shape of corporate alienation today.
If at the beginning of the novel getting old seems the equivalent of landing in the midst of a conspiratorial plot in which the hero is beset by unpredictable natural laws and faceless malignant others, by the end we see something quite different: the notion that age requires of us a kind of imaginative leap, an understanding of ourselves as the heroes of a different kind of story, one that resists the predictable closures of the past.