Sandra Birdsell’s Waiting for Joe is the sort of novel one hazily reads in the back seat of an old car on some backwater road trip, shaking off a headache, or in a small-town motel surrounded by burger wrappers and the smell of burnt coffee. In bare, plot-driven prose, Birdsell narrates the passage of Joe and Laurie, a down-and-out couple hitting the road in a stolen RV; heading west across Canada, they leave a failed business and a senile father who teeters on the brink of death.
Couched within the reigning narrative, Birdsell spins a tangled family history: Joe’s mother, who drowned in an effort to save wife Laurie’s suicidal mother; Joe’s subsequent turn to the church; his best friend encountering a mysterious car on the night of the suicide. It is a captivating story that, with Hemingway-like simplicity, stays largely on the surface. The danger is that this technique fails to communicate the depth of the characters’ experiences. Under Hemingway’s lines the massive iceberg looms perceptibly, but Birdsell’s writing has the air of a meandering journal, almost absent of nuance or reflection, even clichéd in its treatment of the human psyche and comforting in that simplicity.
To wit: Laurie’s compulsive spending in the face of bankruptcy is a textbook case of denial. Evangelical couple Ken and Marianne, rather than share their obscene wealth, use rationalization to justify their life of “abundance.” There is a kind of dime-store psychology to Birdsell’s characters, giving an illusion of depth that fails to stand up to scrutiny. Only Joe emerges as a conflicted character approaching any sort of complexity, through the course of the novel developing a more refined understanding of adversity. As he reflects on Ken and Marianne’s optimistic take on the deaths of 9/11, “it came to [Joe] that saying their deaths were a wake-up call was taking ownership of their tragedy.” (One senses Birdsell’s own perspective intervening.)
It’s not only many of the characters that ring strangely shallow. Peppered throughout Waiting for Joe, metaphors and symbols jump off the page waving frantically at the reader. “Here! Here! I’m a symbol and I am significant!” they scream. After a pause, they recur for added measure.
This may all be unduly harsh for a novel shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, but that is precisely the issue. Waiting for Joe is an entertaining read, but by and large it fails to inspire a new, original, or lasting perspective. Even for a fairly bleak story, there is a pesky sense of escapism in reading the lines. Birdsell’s vision of reality may not be pretty, but it is coherent and straightforward—and the fact is that in times of tragedy, the human experience is usually anything but.
Sarah Fletcher is a Montreal-based writer and Newsletter editor for the Rover.