Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, by Guy Vanderhaeghe, McClelland & Stewart
I first came across Guy Vanderhaeghe way back when, with his story collection Man Descending (1982), and I’m happy to report that he’s back with another volume of stories. Vanderhaeghe is a sure-footed, confident writer, and reading these short works about characters who are not who they think they are, or who they used to be, I felt in good hands. I trusted – an essential part of what we look for from a book.
The story “Tick Tock,” as you might expect, is about a man named Brewster whose clock has been running down without him realizing it. Brewster is a college professor, the kind who is indifferent to his job and his students, and that cliché usually spells trouble in a story. But not here: Brewster has an unusual past, summed up by the many poorly healed fractures of his fingers and hands. His idea of himself as a tough guy comes to an abrupt end when he has to marshal that violence once again.
“Koenig & Company” made me think of the theme put to good use by Richard Ford in his novel Canada: the child left unattended due to his parents’ incapacities. Billy, a high school kid, ends up getting shipped over to the Koenig house. It’s a social disaster for him. The Koenigs are the town ne’er-do-wells whom no one wants to associate with. But wait, there’s Sabrina Koenig, and despite her leg withered by polio, she gives Billy a chance to expand his world. And Billy, of course, is not so sure he wants to know. Neither as a green kid, nor later, as a man, when he declines second chance with Sabrina.
Tony Japp, the over-the-hill actor in “Anything,” is another guy who has big ideas about himself. “Tony’s the man who can play anything,” he’s quick to claim, but he’s the only one who believes in that fiction. If only he could manipulate his props in a more natural fashion, and stop flashing that Georges Bernanos novel. “Spring came in torturous increments,” Vanderhaeghe writes in that story. He must have been talking about our town.
When you have men and their illusions about themselves rubbing up against each other, you naturally have competition. “Daddy Lenin,” the title story, isn’t the only one about that old theme that doesn’t seem to go out of style. In our present age where words like “mentor” and “elder” are bandied about as positive signs, “Daddy Lenin” gives us the retired professor Jorgensen who did everything in his power to sabotage his student Corbin. Sleeping with Corbin’s wife Linda was just the beginning; he also piloted him toward subjects he knew would lead to Corbin’s undoing. Repentant, Jorgensen? Not for an instant. Hoping to embarrass his wife for that old transgression, Corbin invites Jorgensen home for dinner, unannounced. Linda won’t bite at the bait any more than the old professor. Corbin ends up drunk, on the couch. He awakes there at one in the morning, and hallucinates a figure he first thinks is Linda, then Jorgensen. But Vanderhaeghe is too sly for that kind of simple ending. Corbin finally recognizes who it is: “It was Jack Corbin waiting for Jack Corbin to arrive home, arrive at the place to which every step and misstep he had ever made had been leading him for years.” Vanderhaeghe knows that when it comes to competition among men, it’s always every man against himself.
David Homel is a Montreal novelist whose first book dates back to 1988. In the meantime he has published eleven novels, the latest being The Fledglings in 2014.
– photo: Wayne Stadler, Flickr Creative Commons