Culture & Conversation

Ben Allan’s Complaint

David Homel’s previous novels have been praised for their passionate intelligence and insightful descriptions of the human condition. Books like the award-winning The Speaking Cure and Sonya and Jack are considered to be powerful commentaries on the moral and emotional lives of men and women in settings of war and deprivation. Adjectives like exotic, erotic and exciting are scattered liberally throughout the reviews and critiques of his work.

Enter Midway, Homel’s latest book. Set in Montreal at the beginning of the millennium, this novel chronicles the midlife crisis of Ben Allan. Ben is a transplanted Chicagoan, a CEGEP English teacher, and a secular Jew. He is married to a smart and beautiful art therapist, father to a television-addicted son, and sole guardian of his own randy and cantankerous father, a man in his eighties who after his wife’s death chose to live in a seniors’ residence rather than moving in with his Ben and his family.

A Jewish man in the midst of a midlife crisis is not a new theme for a novel. Literary greats like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler have taken up the gauntlet and their attempts have proven one thing: the only way this sub-genre can hope to succeed is if the author serves up a generous amount of humour in the narrative mix. Without the possibility of some regular laughs the midlife crisis novel seems destined to devolve into a self-indulgent whiny guilt-fest with some inappropriate encounters between flaccid old men and underage sex objects on the side.

There is some humour in Homel’s novel, all of it generated by Ben’s octogenarian father. Morris Allan’s rotting teeth and unreliable Parkinson’s-afflicted limbs don’t prevent him from enjoying an active love life with a variety of women residents at the Mature Living Centre. Despite his physical infirmities, Morris manages to engage fully in his life. He is a man invigorated by everything from the sight of horse manure on a downtown street to the chance to harangue a group of Hasidic Jews on a Mile End sidewalk. Morris is revolting and appealing at the same time. He is the kind of unlikely protagonist that manages to win readers over despite first impressions.

But Morris is not the protagonist of Midway. It is Ben Allan who is responsible for driving the plot and claiming the reader’s attention. And unfortunately, unlike his father, Ben Allan is far from engaged and invigorated by his life. One might argue that such malaise is at the core of all crises of this kind. That disinterest and disconnection from the middle-aged reality of wife, job and offspring are an essential part of any character in the throes of a midlife freakout. The problem is that Ben is pretty much unmoved and uninspired by everything, including his crisis. Nothing appears to engender strong emotions of any kind. Not the mysterious and sexually available Carla McWatts, not his son’s addiction, nor the possibility of his wife’s infidelity. The only thing that comes close to pushing Ben towards full engagement is the behaviour of the unscrupulous and manipulative Dr. Albanna, but we never get to see Ben fully engrossed. Instead, the story ends with Ben alone in his kitchen, claiming that his crisis is over and looking ahead to a future dedicated to discovering his wife’s hidden inner life. Not much of a crisis, if you ask me.

B.A. Markus is a writer, teacher and performer living in Montreal. She hasn’t had a midlife crisis yet, but if she does she hopes it involves spiritual enlightenment and world travel.

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