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Rare Jack Hodgins
The Master of Happy Endings
Thomas Allen, 2010, $32.95
of the World
Ronsdale Press re-issue, 2010, $18.95
We often hear
the common reader expressing the wish to re-visit favourite books
during those armchair years when life is remembered and savoured.
“I plan to read Murasaski (or Chaucer) again,” they
promise themselves with the understanding that the experience
will be richer when absorbed from a mature perspective. Now we
have bookends to make life simpler for Jack Hodgins aficionados,
a re-issue of his first novel, aptly named The Invention of the
World, and the publication of The Master of Happy Endings, his
Lear appropriately a bushed scholar.
has often been compared to writers like Thomas Hardy and William
Faulkner, who made memorable characters out of unique settings,
was born into a parenthesis, a time when world war marked the
beginning of the end of the modern age. The parenthesis is still
open and he sees what is coming, a world that needs re-inventing
at least from the human perspective. We did not invent the Earth,
but we did create a society fraught with reminders of human fallibility.
That fallibility has been brought forward with high-seriousness
in the human comedies written by Hodgins, whose societal view
is tolerant, coloured by the Aristotelian understanding that we
are surrounded by perfection, but often trip over the evidence
as it reveals itself.
fictional world is the Northwest Rainforest, a place already defined
in the spirit religion and iconography of our First Nations. His
characters, all “bushed” in different ways, stumble
out that tradition. They are carved from trees and the spirits
speak through them, even though they are imperfect channels. As
we read the stories, we can identify Dzunuk’wa, Wild Woman
of the Woods, who gathers children in a basket and feeds those
who deserve to be fed, and Raven the trickster, his laughter bouncing
from branch to branch. The wry but compassionate author has spent
his lifetime defining a new post-contact forest mythology that
respects what came before. The river flows through it and hopefully
we might learn from the river.
of the World is an ironic title. We are an arrogant species who,
in the post-Renaissance view, regard other orders as adversaries
to overcome. In order to justify this, we invented the notions
of good and evil. Man is good. The sea that swallows sailors is
evil. The animals that attack humans to protect their young are
evil. We are the higher intelligence and we will use that power
to control the oceans and winds and flora and fauna that exist
only as a setting for human society.
Now we hear
Raven laughing. All along, he knew that was untrue.
So many settlers
came to the New World expecting a Utopian outcome. Life would
be better here. They’d civilize the unknown forest and,
metaphor of all metaphors, turn its trees into paper to spread
our message. British Columbia has attracted a number of messianic
characters who led their vulnerable brethren into the woods from
which they sometimes emerge to tell their stories. The notion
of ideal community, the carrot that lured their ancestors to these
shores, was reprised in the Sixties when young urbanites returned
to the land, establishing communes that by and large failed for
the same reasons their predecessors had. This is the backdrop
for Hodgins’ post-hippy assessment. By the late Seventies,
the great experiment had gone South, the hottest place in our
collective imagination, in Wild Woman’s legendary basket.
don’t seem to absorb our lessons, the lessons bear repeating.
Because Hodgins delivers them with compassionate laughter, the
reader opens up to a greater understanding.
Maggie, who has taken over the dilapidated remains of The Revelations
Colony of Truth, a doubtful concept, is an earth mother of doubtful
provenance. She has loved and gained. The residue of her careless
and random affection is children who grow in a garden of neglect.
Still, Maggie, never a virgin mother, has holy aspirations:
It would be
exciting to drop off pounds of lard, to peel the fat off layer
by layer, and get so thin eventually that they would have to wire
you to the earth to keep you from ascending to the sky, floating
right up out of sight because there wasn’t enough of you
left for gravity to get hold of. She could see herself, going
up in the air like a slow rocket, ascending perpendicular, and
all encircled in light like one of those saint people, pure spirit,
while flesh and bones lay heavy on the ground like discarded clothes.
of Maggie’s unsanctified holy ambitions is masterful. At
the same time she is innocent and grotesque. The stage is set.
One of Maggie’s
kids is getting married. The mayhem that intrudes on the wedding
preparations foreshadows the inevitable desecration of this union.
We are ready for trouble, as is Raven, the ventriloquist, who
throws the voices of brides and grooms, murderers and murdered,
from the upper branches of a cedar tree, beyond reach.
seen it all before. He is omniscient and has been in this wood
forever, and in all the other woods in the world, even Ireland
where this tale started when a young woman died giving birth to
the monstrous founder of the Colony of Truth who split himself
into two parts, Good and Evil, that would keep popping up, generation
after generation, just like Cain and Abel in the first mythical
garden. This is a game of round and round, birth, copulation and
death, fall and redemption, witnessed by Wild Woman, Mad Mother
Thomas in this version of the creation and recreation story.
No one is
surprised when Maggie marries Wade, the new incarnation of the
mythical good brother. The reader is given clues to Wade recognition.
He is either one of those supernatural beings that tore off its
face to endow humans with special gifts or he is a human chosen
to receive it: “It’s only an ugly mask you’re
wearing just to spite me, his mother said, “And someday
I’ll find a way of zipping it off you.”
Wade are no fairytale couple. They are in fact the anti-heroic,
a slut and a sloth. “There were people,” Hodgins wrote,
“who chose to live as if no one had invented civilization.
They were people who chose to ignore everything that humanity
had done to improve life over thousands of years.” This,
we are beginning to realize, might be a good thing.
Wade is not
charismatic, but he is kind. That is enough for Maggie, now. The
wedding feast is spiced with enough sex and violence to last a
lifetime, but lifetimes are short. This is a story that has no
ending, because there is only one story and it keeps repeating
itself. In his layering of legend, Hodgins began his career as
a novelist with this branding: cast and plot are reliably predictable,
but the details reinvent themselves to keep the story endlessly
of Happy Endings may be reporting the positive outcome of this
marriage, even though the characters have changed. There is a
time in life when every mortal begins to think of roads not taken,
doors closing and the near impossibility of happy endings. “How
will I go on if he/she predeceases me” is one of those intrusive
thoughts. It seems as if the only end to a happy marriage is despair.
Some go so far as to make suicide pacts.
For Axel Thorstad,
the end game couple contract was not a possibility. His wife died
suddenly and without warning. The angel of death had descended
in medias res, uninvited into their golden years. Axel is one
of those men who never fell out of love. His marital co-dependence
had been complete and satisfactory. The rest has been limbo, an
extended season of loneliness and isolation in the couple’s
once wrote that a successful life moves from fear to freedom,
but he died relatively young, before he could record the final
movement in the symphony of earthly existence. It is not hard
to imagine fear taking over when married people are faced with
the awful reality of bereavement.
The sky scraping
component of Victoria’s exemplary literary love couple has
projected natural apprehension into his foundering widower. Whatever
has informed Hodgins’ creation of his geriatric protagonist
character, uxorious with a top note of grief, Axel is fully realized
as a man living out what has become a fugue, one tune that keeps
looping back to the time before the retired school teacher and
amateur cellist lost his pianist wife.
has been folding his large shadow into a smaller and smaller drawer,
advertises his services as a tutor in a bid to abandon his bereft
paradise and have a last crack at freedom. The widower whose worst
nightmare is “shiploads of senior-seniors sent out to sea
and forbidden to return” busts out of the prison grief has
made of his formerly idyllic life in Estevan Island, a pitch perfect
portrait of island life in British Columbia.
All our islands
are Brigadoon, where inbred populations disappear into forests
with vertical longings. No one captures the comedic gap between
man and tree
as ably as Hodgins.
Axel’s aspirations are vertical, there are only horizontal
moves in his board game of life. He carries his good intentions
and a pocket Chaucer south to Hollywood, where “souning
in moral vertu was his speech, and gladly would he learn and gladly
teach” an aspiring actor who is required to finish high
school by parents who wisely distrust an artistic vocation, possibly
because they have been created by a writer who has a forest canopy
view of that oxymoron “arts community.”
has genetic history in Hollywood (his father a stuntman allegedly
died jumping of a roof, his first stunt), is an absurdity among
the lollypop people (actors with finite bodies and round photogenic
heads). His gangly shape is as bad a fit in the ethically challenged
gathering of movieland egos as are his values. Fortunately, salvation
is foreshadowed in his charge’s philanthropic work among
the homeless. Travis, the boy actor, who began volunteering in
order to understand his part in a series and remained committed
to the down and out, proves to be redeemable in spite of his fascination
is any Island on the BC Coast, Hollywood plays itself, Sodom West.
Enter the actress Oonagh, a ghost from Axel’s limited sexual
history who arrives on the set in time to hear him articulate
the realization that eventually comes to everyone who lives long
enough to achieve loneliness, “…it always seemed important
that there be those who were going before us – sometimes
as teachers or coaches or self-appointed uncles, but mostly just
there, running things, providing examples, and causing us to feel
we’re following in their footsteps.”
“And now they’ve disappeared.” Her voice was
disappointed for him.
their footsteps with them.” This seemed to have happened
while he was hiding out on his island. “Of course I should
have known but it has caught me by surprise,” as it always
a master of sweet irony. If the human comedy dictates happy endings,
we are rewarded by Axel’s circuitous journey from innocence
to experience that leaves us instructed in the meaning of life.
For the aging protagonist, this means rediscovery and revelation,
the realization that everything real and imagined is transitory.
Ars breva, vita breva.
that his creator may have felt in projecting the gentle creature
from his experience / imagination on to the page is integrated
in the character of a careful man who reacts slowly, as in movie
close-ups not on the bigger stage of life. Axel is no actor. He
is real. Every step he takes is one slow frame in the leisurely
film documentary of his journey. He has ventured off to find what
he already knows.
Back on his
island after his Chaucerian pilgrimage to Hollywood, where there
are no endings because no one gets old, he realizes he had happiness
in his suitcase all along. Axel has led an authentic life and
he can look back and see the good he has done. That should be
the measure of every man.
is at the retrospective stage of his career. The word stage has
been chosen because his genre is theatre. The books read like
films seen at drive-in movies in the forest. Just like the old
days of Punch and Judy and Commedia del arte, the characters are
familiar because they come from ordinary life.
commentators like to talk about Hodgins’ “magic realism”
and compare him to writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez’s
writing is steeped in the memory of Catholicism with its promised
miracles and sacramental mysteries, a kind of baroque counter/counter
reformation. Hodgins’ “magic” is not alchemy.
It is more empirical than that. A tree is a tree and regarding
it as anything else is the source of irony in Hodgins’ stories,
whose sensibility is closer to an Indigenous point of view than
the European ethno-centrism which still pervades academic thinking.
stretches to the baroque possibility, it is a form of neo-mannerism
as his characters yearn, and therein lurks the comic potential,
for the verticality of trees. Of course they fail, just as the
Revelations Colony of Truth failed, because ideal society is less
a creation than a social organism that finds the balance between
the vertical and the horizontal.
A more seamless
iconography of the woods, one that migrated from Asia and evolved
over thousands of years, already exists in the Rainforest. The
European model is in conflict here and Hodgins’ know this
better than the commentators who create formulas for his non-formulaic
whose Writer’s Series is one of the finer moments of its
founder Antonio D’Alfonso, has recently published Jack Hodgins,
Essays on His Works with a stunning photo of Canlit’s Wild
Man of the Woods on the cover. These questions are considered
within. One of the commendable features of the Writers Series
is that each book has a different editor, bringing varied perspectives
to the life and work of Canadian authors. In this case, the essays
are mostly written by academics who reflect the current tilt back
to formalism in the Canadian book industry. Their papers contribute
to the diversity of opinion, but the author remains enigmatic.
The most revealing
part of the book is the interview with Tim Struthers in which
Hodgins, like a magician who is bound by oath to protect his tricks,
lets the interviewer answer most of his own questions about how
he draws supernatural narratives out of a familiar landscape.
Struthers’ innocent caveat, “Possibly the most important
lesson I have learned from writers…is how art resists, redefines,
transcends the terms that critics apply in studying it,”
transforms his worldly speculation into non sequitur. Perhaps
that is why the man on the cover is laughing.
Rogers is Victoria’s poet laureate. Her recent book Muscle
Memory was voted Monday Magazine’s poetry book of the