Monday, July 16, 2007

Globe Review of Ray Smith's Flush of Victory

A first for Biblioasis: This past Saturday, we had two reviews in the Globe & Mail. In this post, Charlie Foran's review of Ray Smith's Flush of Victory; in the post below, George Murray's review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant. Though both were good (and positive), Charlie Foran's in particular is everything a good review should be: thoughtful, considered, and well-written, placing the book within the larger context of the author's body of work. I think the fact that he pulled this off in1000 word or less quite impressive.

It's also worth mentioning that Biblioasis is republishing all 4 of the books Foran singles out as being Smith's best work as part of its Renditions series. Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada was published in November of last year; Night at the Opera will be released this month; Century next Spring; and Lord Nelson's Tavern sometime thereafter. Century in particular is a stellar piece of work, one of the best short novels I've read in a long time, deserving of canonical status. Hopefully there will come a time when Ray will acquire the readership and reputation he deserves.

Don't wait for our edition of Century: go to Abebooks and pick up a copy. It was published by Stoddart, in 1986 (I think); you could probably find yourself a copy for 15.00 or less. Well, well, well worth the investment.

Now ... without further introduction, Foran's review.

Inside the spy story lurks a Swiftian darkness


Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins

By Ray Smith

Biblioasis, 334 pages, $23.95

The long, singular career of Ray Smith is testament to the virtues and perils of literary wanderlust. An irreverent voice in the earnest early days of CanLit nationalism, the Nova Scotia native launched smartly with the 1969 story collection Cape Breton is the Thought Control Centre of Canada, a book whose title alone merited its canonization. Two years later, the Halifax-rooted novel Lord Nelson Tavern struck a still more original note, offering bite and insight, charm and sentimentality, in stylish, often wildly funny prose.

Fifteen years later, Smith, now a teacher at a Montreal college, reappeared with Century. A series of linked fictions that charted calamitous recent European history while meditating on the limits of art to affect moral change, Century marked a starling escalation in ambition. Here was an artist reborn after long silence with new seriousness and range.

With Smith's next novel, 1992's A Night at the Opera, the aesthetic canvas was altered once again. Set in a town in postwar Germany, with glances back into the murk of medieval lore, this satire of provincialism and petty-mindedness was likely meant to echo the habits of contemporary Quebec. While a bravura literary performance, the book was almost too lost in its own ornate conceits to persuade. Two subsequent novels set in "real" Montreal were bitter and blunt in this regard.

The Flush of Victory: Jack Bottomly Among the Virgins isn't going to be accused of excess subtlety. Ray Smith's latest is not only a broad farce, half inspired and half silly, but also a straightforward spy romp, closer in spirit to the black comedy of 1960s pranksters Terry Southern and Ken Kesey than any fancy metafictions. It is also pan-Canadian in the sweep of its bemusement, and its ire.

Major Jack (Bummo) Bottomly is an intelligence officer for the Canadian Air Force. The year is 1979, and the repellent Bottomly is resigned to ending his Ottawa career in a haze of booze and boredom and inappropriate remarks to, and lunges at, women. To his surprise and delight, he falls upon a plot to steal a local aircraft. Better still, the operation seems the improbable brainchild of both the KGB and the CIA. Finally, Canada will get to play with the big boys.

"This is the real spying," he says of the covert intelligence game, "and, of course, it is exactly the kind Canadians are still forbidden to do. We are not allowed to send men in trench coats to lurk about the Kremlin, we must not try to subvert visiting Russian ballerinas, and we are sensibly forbidden to do over-flights. Canadian pilot brought down near Minsk: 'No shit, tovarich: it looked just like Moose Jaw to me!' "

Assisted by his even more Rabelaisian Aussie sidekick, Bluey Jones, Bottomly sets out to foil these assailants upon sleepy Canadian sovereignty and imbibe as many "chilled tubes" of beer, preferably the Australian brand Foster's, as the bladder allows. Espionage is pure slapstick, including an attempt by our antihero to shoot a tire belonging to a Russian spy that ends with him plugging a "fat old broad" in the backside, and enemies are incompetents, most notably a "poufter" secret agent couple. The plot, suitably labyrinthine for a faux-thriller, is the excuse for pokes at various pretensions and self-delusions, domestic and international.

Jack Bottomly himself is a stereotype, and Smith has almost too much fun cataloguing his determinedly offensive views and utterances. As the title suggests, The Flush of Victory also enjoys a good toilet joke, over and over, and probably wouldn't temper the scatology even if begged. For all the surface sheen to the picaresque, a dark, Swiftian distaste for the human animal runs beneath. The difficulty of assigning obvious targets to the book's deeper impulses keeps the reader off-balance, never quite sure where to laugh and where to wince.

In this sense, the novel is as defiant as anything Smith has published in the course of his shape-shifting odyssey as an outsider to mainstream literary culture. Canadian writing, then as now, is unreceptive to the scabrous, the calculated outrage. It struggles with bookish conceits of any kind, as a matter of fact, preferring its fictions straight, no-chaser, with as little formal innovation as possible. Even simple satire is a tough sell.

According to its publisher, The Flush of Victory is first in a series of proposed Bottomly stories. Wonderful indeed if such bar-room/bathroom farce gains Ray Smith a wider audience in late career. For long-time admirers, however, especially those of us who took special delight in his literary daring, his willingness to reconfigure the form for each new book, the further misadventures of Major Jack Bottomly are unlikely to birth anything as genuinely bold as Century or A Night at the Opera.

Charles Foran's most recent novel is Carolan's Farewell.

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