[lit-ideas] Thursday book review -- long

  • From: Paul Stone <pas@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Thu, 22 Jun 2006 11:21:03 -0400

Back on Tuesday -- David Gilmour

I've been a big fan of David's since he was a fledgling writer and actually was first exposed to him when he had a program a decade ago for several years on Canadian Television called "Gilmour: on the arts". His opinions were not always my own, but he held to them fiercely with a good intellectual, if not emotional, argument about why he held them. Funnily enough, he was also a big coffee drinker. Perhaps that caffeine thing doesn't work up here in the great white north as well as it does on the more malleable citizens below the belt.

Ironically, I've read all of Gilmour's books -- I think 8 or 9 now -- but this: "Back on Tuesday", his debut from 1987, I've read last. My first encounter with Gilmour was his 1992 book "How Boys See Girls", which is, as I've said in the past on Phil-Lit, REALLY a good description of how boys see girls: by 'boys' of course being 'men who are still childish and brutish' and by 'girls', those magnificent 'young women who have all the features that the boys so like'. I was hooked. His writing resonated with me as much as anyone's had, on a visceral level. It's not literature, but it's not just another book either.

He is a street writer, but from the Canadian streets. He's a sort of a young, more self-actualized Mailer, but without the false bravado. What Gilmour brings is a real maleness that surely includes all the boorishness that we inhabit, but also has tenderness and a firm comfort in his feminine side as well.

Little sentences jump out as 'yeah' moments. "And looking at my reflection in the elevator overhead mirror, I wondered how I had ever become so weak and frightened And how long had it been going on."

At times he writes sentences that clearly evoke a homoerotic subtext, but you never for one minute think his characters are the least bit gay. Quite the opposite, since they take great pains to evoke all that which makes us men. Some would say they protest too much, but I think they protesteth justh enoughth.

In "Back on Tuesday" we see another of Gilmour's 'sides of himself' -- almost all his writing is surely at least borne in his autobiography, and if the character is not a side of David, it is almost surely an amalgam of someone he knew in his writerly pursuits along the way. This time, it's a hack writer Eugene H. who works for his soon to be ex-wife J. Together they have a child "Franny" who they both love dearly. J has 'moved on', while Gene, not so much.

The first 40 pages or so sets up, very clearly the relationship that they have. He is clearly suffering from an unrequited love for J. and regrets almost every decision he's made in the past few years. His 2 day trek -- the stuff of which occupies the rest of the book -- is littered with the inability for him to stop thinking about J. and regretting so much. Having their offspring along probably saves him. It's his anchor. It's his albatross around his neck that makes him remember whence he came, so that maybe, just maybe, he WILL be back on Tuesday.

One day, he's had enough. J's new beau[described as a looking like a "Turkish Terrorist"] pisses him off. J pisses him off. Gene decides to cash in and go to Jamaica -- and take their child with him. He has a friend down there. He has no plans, but to go. It's a lark. A stupid, adventurous, meaningless, reckless lark.

Through the next 18 hours or so, he makes a lot of decisions, but almost all are on the spur of the moment. It's a whirlwhind tour that gets you thinking. The author KNOWS about drinking, about womanizing, about being socially inept sometimes, about grudgingly loving somebody, about feeling responsibility, about mental illness, about interacting with unwanted strangers.

And the writing is good. There are revelations that aren't the Dan Brown type. They are things you might have thought, but not really expressed or even achieved clarity on them. Here is one example:

One evening I was sitting in a chair beside the bathtub and Franny was splashing and nattering and singing little tuneless bars. I don't remember where J. was but at one point I realized that i was late, that I had to go. And I wanted to stay with Fran, really I did, but I also really wanted to go.

"Franny," I said gently, "I have to go." And she stretched out a little cream-coloured arm and pulled the plug and I felt such tenderness for her, such extraordinary love. I leaned over and kissed her, kissed her on the top of her blond head.

She was absorbed with water whirling down the drain and she didn't seem to take any notice. But then, without looking at me, she asked, "Why are you kissing me?"

And the question, the eveness with which she asked it rocked me.

"Because I love you."

"No, you're kissing me because you're leaving."

It came like an electric shock. I'd been caught in a false moment and without so much as directing her eyes at me she'd unmasked me. I had kissed her because I DID feel guilty; the hand was hers, unmistakably, and I knew that from then on she'd always be just ahead of me, that I'd inevitably end up running behind her, carrying last month's assumptions like last year's snow suit.

This is not groundbreaking, but it's good, revelatory writing. It serves the purpose. It shows that Eugene purportedly loves his little Franny and the reader has no doubt he does. But then Gene feels the need to reassure the reader "And I wanted to stay with Fran, really I did, but I also really wanted to go." As much as he is reassuring the reader, and more, he is rationalizing his own selfishness and lack of willing to put up with the fatherhood responsibility. The last paragraph cops his attitude that he feels like he's no longer up to it. The "they grow up so fast" sentiment drips from the pages. He never dotes on his little miracle, but he gives her her props whenever she deserves them. He treats her like a human and that, in the least, and in spite of it all, is admirable.

The novel has a brief preface that goes like this:

"No, I didn't kidnap the child. You can't kidnap your own child. Well you could, I suppose, but I never would. No, that wasn't it. Nor was it as simple as I pretended at the time: that I simply took her to Jamaica without telling her mother. Anyway, to my credit I was cold sober when I did it. At the beginning."

This is Gilmour in a nutshell. Clear, succinct, laying out the possibilities, but still with giving you a "ooh, I wonder what happens?" feeling. With just a surface analysis of this preface we can see from the first sentence that he refers to Franny as "the" child. Clearly he feels distance and almost burden. Then he moves on to a sense of ownership or at least stewardship. He is taking a LITTLE responsibility. Then he moves on to the logic of calling it 'kidnapping'. He's a very pragmatic, philosophical guy without ever making a real statement. Even here, he is hedging both sides but still questioning. Then he rationalizes his behaviour, being the 'boy' that he always is. Lastly, he has to give himself a LITTLE credit, but then he makes you think "I wonder what happens".

I didn't hate Gene and I didn't love him. I was curious as to how the whole thing was going to work itself out, but even with a hundred pages left, I knew that really, it wouldn't. Because in reality, these things NEVER work themselves out. It's an ugly situation and it will remain such. There is no real resolution, so if you like clean endings, don't read Gilmour. But if you like a slice and some really good writing with cool observations that are not outwardly JUST observations, go for it.

As a final note, I must say that while I liked this novel, it was a bit of a letdown and confusingly so. When I bought it at Christmas, i had no idea that it was his first novel. Even when I read it last week, I didn't know. So, since I had read all of his other books in the order he wrote them, I was a bit miffed that he hadn't continued to grow with this one. His other writing -- especially recent stuff -- borders on "really good", but this was merely enjoyable. The revelation that it was his first was re-assuring and I know that I can safely go on buying each new release with the anticipation that I previously had. I suppose if you were starting out to read Gilmour, this would be a good place to start knowing that it only gets better and very quickly -- How Boys see Girls is MILES above this one.


Paul Stone
Kingsville, ON, Canada

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