The first thing to note about Marina Endicott’s Close to Hugh is the book’s voice, which is alive with impish humour, a deep reservoir of humanity and a gift for quirky, evocative phrasing. These have always been strengths of this Edmonton-based writer’s work, even in her first novel, the straightforward first-person Open Arms, but in Close to Hugh, her fourth novel, she has taken things to another level: it is more droll, more insightful and even better crafted than its predecessors. Every sentence in this book made me want to read the next one.
The wondrous thing is that Endicott employs this distinctive voice entirely in the service of her characters, a collection of students, teachers, actors, artists and other vivid creative types living in Peterborough, Ontario. The sections of the novel featuring the eponymous Hugh Argylle—an art gallery owner—are not written in the same style or tone as those sections about, say, Elle, the teenaged daughter of one of Hugh’s friends. The student Orion—tall, good looking, talented and gay—is portrayed in entirely different terms from, say, Ivy, the visiting 50-something actress who finds herself falling in love with Hugh.
Then there are the sections devoted to Della, one of the major players in this comedy of small-town manners, that are written in a fractured, first-person, stream-of-consciousness form that most resembles free-verse poetry. This is wholly new to Endicott’s writing and perfect for the conflicted Della, whom another character describes as having a layer of calm “like custard skin, gently set over a seething mass beneath.” But if the vocabulary and points of view change, the essential warmth and wit of the prose are always present.
As in her previous work, Endicott is dealing with big ideas and profound issues, including in this case love, death, sex, charity, obligation, youth, aging, faithfulness, infidelity, art, cooking and … well, pederasty. (There are two incidents in the book of an older man having sex with a boy, both of which, in different ways, provoke anguish and anger.) Chapters, divided into the days of the week, open mostly with quotes from Buddhist texts, especially pertaining to suffering, hope and fear. (Also one from Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a memoir about reuniting with a long-lost father by the U.S. writer Nick Flynn.)
Close to Hugh is more densely populated than Endicott’s other fictions. There are multiple characters in The Little Shadows, a vaudeville romp set in the pre–First World War Canadian west, but that novel was focused tightly on the adventures of the performing troupe of the title, three sisters who take to the stage to escape life on the farm. Similarly, Good to a Fault and Open Arms concentrated mostly on their lead characters. It is a truism to say that all novels are ultimately about relationships, but Close to Hugh is built on an extensive web of them, various and constantly shifting.
The action in this deliciously complex novel takes place over one rainy week in October. Hugh, owner of a small downtown art gallery, is a do-gooder in the best sense of the term. He employs the elderly Ruth as a gallery assistant, although there really is not enough work for her. He is devoted to his mother, who is living out her last days in a hospice, where he visits her at least once every day, and often several times. He quietly supports Jasper, the tipsy owner of the antiques store next to his gallery, and goes out of his way to give a break to a young local artist. Late in the novel he makes a list of everyone’s problems and what can be done about them: “What’s Wrong? MIMI: dying. What Would Help? 0—nothing—nada—zip.” Ruth is “old, poor.” What would help? “affection, $$.” Jasper is “poor, old, drunk.” What would help? “$$ + AA?”
A brief but significant aside related to the title: “Hugh lives his life in the second person,” Endicott writes, “never quite sure whether it’s Hugh or you. Either one demands, accuses, requires responsibility. You’ll do it—or was that Hugh’ll do it? You/Hugh said everything would be okay. Why did you leave? Where did Hugh go?” Pretty much every possible pun on “Hugh” is made somewhere, either in the text or in section headings: Hugh Can Take It; Hugh Belong to Me; Hughtopia. I thought that this would wear thin, but thanks to Endicott’s ingenuous persistence and endless imagination, it does not.
The novel’s characters fall into two groups, mid life and student, almost all of them either artistic or theatrical. Two on the adult side are of particular interest to Hugh: Newell Fane, a one-time star at Stratford who went on to a successful and lucrative career in U.S. television, and Della Belville, an artist specializing in sailboats, who is Elle’s mother and wife of the improvident and possibly unfaithful Ken. Hugh, Newell and Della first met as children, when they were all, for one reason or another, partly raised by Ruth. Hugh’s own mother, Mimi—an actor, performance artist, Warhol associate, Trudeau girlfriend, television personality and all-round larger-than-life celebrity—was rarely available for maternal duty. The trio has shared many life experiences and regard themselves as foster-siblings.
Hugh and Ivy gracefully falling in love provides the main plot line. Ivy is in town because Ansel Burton, once Newell Fane’s mentor (and seducer), is conducting a master class on Sweeney Todd with the advanced theatre students at the local high school. “[Hugh] hates—hates— … Burton, a plump and aging queen who hates Hugh right back in spades, doubled and redoubled.” The older actor’s preening ego and vicious tongue make him easy to dislike, but for Newell’s sake, Hugh tries to get along with him—apart from slugging him at that “meet the faculty” party.
Also in the master class are a selection of teenaged actors, artists and designers, several of them the children of the novel’s adult players: Jason the costume designer, for instance, is the son of Hugh’s ex-wife Ann, by her second ex-husband. The teens, and their relationships with each other and with their parents and the other adults, ring absolutely true. They are a tangled mass of love, lust, ambition, talent, and that peculiarly teenage blend of self-confidence and deep-seated insecurity.
A central event is Hugh’s 30th anniversary dinner party for Della and Ken, which he is determined to make memorable despite—or perhaps because of—the couple’s marital woes, and even though he must take time out from preparations to smooth over a master-class contretemps, and even though he is suffering increasingly painful headaches after falling from a ladder. Nevertheless, the dinner party, prepared with assistance from Ivy and the teenagers, is a wonder. Think Babette’s Feast times two, or maybe three, and without the Protestant restraint.
The novel ends on an upbeat note (in a section headed Hughphoria) with Hugh and Ivy in bed, Ivy sleeping contentedly and Hugh calmly reflecting on the future: “You’ll be fine,” he thinks. “You have people to look after. You won’t, Hugh won’t abandon anyone … All of them. All of us who will be dead, all of us, if the fabric of the world is not kept whole by constant never-ending vigilance … It is not over yet, not yet, not yet. At least, that is the story you tell yourself.”