Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A New Canadian Hero Rises

A review in the Toronto Star this Sunday, for Ray Smith's new novel, The Flush of Victory.

Bummo Bottomly is a shamelessly rude, incorrect, drunken boor – long may he romp

There is a generic moment in some films called a "pat-the-dog scene" where the hero performs a gratuitous act of kindness or decency that demonstrates his essential goodness. Patting a dog on the head, or standing up for the weak and the defenceless, or simply espousing some virtuous, progressive cause, encourages us to identify with such a figure. It's a trick that always works, since we like to think ourselves better than we are.

The opposite of a pat-the-dog scene doesn't have a name that I know of, but what it looks like can be seen near the beginning of Montrealer Ray Smith's The Flush of Victory. Major Jack "Bummo" Bottomly of Canadian Air Force Intelligence, drunk as always, is crouching in an alley, trying to shoot the tires out from under a car belonging to some Soviet spies. After a few spectacular failures, including a shot that goes down the street and hits a "fat old broad" in the bum, his mission is accomplished. Alas, a young feminist "hippie broad" has seen what he's up to and belts him with a two-by-four. Turning the tables, he kicks her in the knee and then knocks her out with a blow to the head.
He starts to make his escape from the alley but then, determined to prove that chivalry is not quite dead enough, returns to stick his hand under the unconscious girl's clothes to paw her breasts. He is delighted to find she isn't wearing a bra.

Welcome to 1979, those hard-drinking, bare-knuckled days when men were men, chicks were broads, and "poufter" was a rather faggy British word for a fag. Major Bottomly, our intrepid and verbally dexterous narrator (plus all-around misogynist, racist and homophobic pig), is a middle-aged military bureaucrat stationed in Ottawa – which means he has nothing much to do or even look forward to in life beyond drinking, wanking and thinking up new ways to steal from the government. Then one day, out of the gray, he uncovers what appears to be a joint KGB/CIA operation to hijack one of our airplanes.
The ins-and-outs of the crazy spy story that follows are a bit hard to follow, but not that important anyway. Jack has schemes of his own, and along with his Australian counterpart and long-time drinking buddy, "Bluey" Jones, he is soon having a series of misadventures involving high finance, low nightlife and international intrigue.

The resulting farce is an entertaining and shamelessly obstreperous romp that holds nothing sacred. Stereotypes abound, from the bovine and illiterate secretary at Jack's office to the laboriously affected pair of gay secret agents cruising on Jack's tail. But Bottomly himself is a great Canadian original, more than just a beer-bellied, lecherous clown with piles. At least some of his "crude, boorish, drunken, incompetent colonial" persona is a deliberate disguise, since "you're always better off when the opposition underestimates you." He is also a wonderful storyteller with a flair for the snappy wisecracks and cut-and-thrust ribaldry, which, along with carefully prepared detonations of sheer slapstick, make the book so funny.

What wears thin is not Jack's crudity or loutishness but rather the juvenility of so much of Smith's material. His sense of comedy here is dominated by childish pranks, fart jokes and bathroom humour. There are at least half a dozen scenes that involve some calamitous misuse of the "bog." This is going to the porcelain well a bit too often, even for those with a taste for such stuff.

In general, Smith's literary model, aside from the genre elements, is Wodehouse, both in terms of his arrangement of mounting comic catastrophes as well as in the furiously paced dialogue. With regard to the latter, the "Pommer" influence might also explain the mix of so many British colloquialisms (like "poufter" and "bog") with the less sure handling of some of the North American vernacular. The speech of a young computer nerd, for example, is heavily sprinkled with the ubiquitous (and a bit anachronistic) "like" but it almost always appears in the wrong place. It even shows up at the end of sentences as an interrogative, which has to be the only position in spoken English it simply can't go.

The Flush of Victory is the first in a projected series of Jack Bottomly adventures. If the first instalment is any indication, such a franchise may turn into a test of this nation's tolerance for rude humour. I hope it's a test we pass. After such a spirited launch it would be a shame not to have Jack back for another campaign, looking out for his own best chance and coincidentally standing on guard for thee.

Alex Good's website of book news and reviews is

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