There is an episode in the title story of Montreal novelist and playwright Marianne Ackerman’s new book “Holy Fools + 2 Stories,” where her protagonist Peter Wright, doing time for a murder he did not commit, has a conversation with a commanding figure in the prison called both “The Pope” and “Tolstoy” by the inmates. Pope-Tolstoy, imprisoned for fraud, tax evasion and a host of other crimes, is a millionaire who built his fortune on the purchase of a toilet paper factory while completing his PhD in History, and he has written “tome after tome” of hulking biographies on great men and the ways in which they changed the world. Such a character, in the hands of an earnest enforcer of the tonic chords of contemporary realist fiction, would be red penciled as straining credibility. Just like real life, you might say; Pope-Tolstoy’s resemblance to a certain former media magnate here in Canada, and the way Ackerman gives him voice through the pitch-perfect dialogue of a writer in full command of her craft, merits a closer reading.
Here is Pope-Tolstoy and Wright while in prison, discussing the value of Wright taking two courses of action: both aiding the police in finding the real murderer and proving his own innocence:
“ ‘Yes, yes,’ said Tolstoy, nodding vigorously. ‘You are wise to pursue one course, rather than two. Dissipating energy on a dual objective is rarely a wise strategy.’
Peter found himself nodding back.
‘I also think it’s probably easier to prove guilt than it is to prove innocence,’ he said. ‘I mean, guilty people leave clues. Innocent people just get themselves all caught up in a ball of circumstantial string.’”
It is precisely these “balls of circumstantial string” that interest Ackerman with her holy fools in these stories: Peter Wright the lab assistant-turned-murder-suspect, Ramon Lopez the failed economist of “Nobody Writes To The Colonel” and Albert Fine, the farm hand in the final story of the same name are indeed innocents, straight men rather than the comic improvisers who can gracefully elude the pratfalls of fate. They are less the authors of their own lives rather than those struggling to discover whom the ghostwriters might be before the final pages.
In both “Holy Fools” and “Nobody Writes To The Colonel” Ackerman maintains a steady, low current of satire humming through the stories. It never obtrudes to the point where character is sacrificed to a broader design, however.
Ramon Lopez’s “big idea” as an economist, “that the models describing Western capitalist economies were flawed, therefore ineffective as a basis for governance, or even financial management,” is just like Pope-Tolstoy’s intellectual ambitions, quite plausible, his pride and his quiet suffering of the wounds of his humiliation poignant in the face of an indifferent academic culture in North America where “no one expects hard truths from a Latin American;” they expect the “hallucinatory despair” of a “Magic Realism that goes down well with a mariachi band playing somewhere in the background.” Ackerman’s characters are naïfs or fools because they are out of sync with what the world around them consigns as serious and what it condemns to the margins.
Condemned to the margins of society is also a fitting epitaph for Ackerman’s third holy fool Albert Fine, but in this final story there is no trace of satire; the tone is darker and, like a rural gothic story of Alice Munro’s, richly realized, vivid in its evocation of family life on a Canadian farm in 1963 and the desperation of a man who bears the harsh disfigurement of his soul with a strange grace – almost innocent, almost holy if any kind of salvation was plausible in his utter incomprehension of how evil has claimed him. The world Ackerman creates here, with her deft weaving of the threads of a story so rich in texture and characterization, suggests “Albert Fine” could have easily been written as a novella or novel and not suffered from any dissipation of the narrative focus.
Indeed, if there was any cavil with “Holy Fools + 2 Stories,” it is that “Albert Fine” is so distinct in tone and approach from the first two stories, it calls for a broader collection that would give the reader the full sense of what Ackerman is clearly capable of achieving, packing the depth and power of a novel into each gem cut narrative.
Holy Fools + 2 Stories is published by Guernica Editions.
This review appears in the December issue of The Ottawa Review of Books.
John Delacourt’s first novel, Ocular Proof, has just been published by Seraphim Editions. His stories and other writing have appeared in a number of publications in Canada and elsewhere including The New Quarterly and The Guardian (UK). He’s also written for theatre and had his work staged at Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. He currently blogs on culture and politics at www.johndelacourt.com