MAN DESCENDING by Guy Vanderhaeghe


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A dozen short stories by a 34-year-old Canadian writer, Man Descending (touted as the 1982 winner of the Governor General's Literary Award) comes to less than the sum of its parts. Almost all the stories are hinged on moments of mindless violence. In the title story, the narrator, Ed, drunk, picks a brawl with his wife's lover at a New Year's Eve party and gets thrashed. In ""The Watcher,"" a weak-chested 11-year-old boy brutalizes and then kills his stem grandmother's only rooster. In ""Cages,"" a younger brother, who by intelligence has kept an older brother out of trouble, can't stand going to jail for him; so when he's charged with beating up a man the older brother had bloodied, he confesses. How does their father respond? ""You goddamn snitch,"" he says. The stories are mostly about lower middle-class and working-class people miserably yoked together by marriage or blood. Trapped in pointless lives, they act out their resentments and failures on each other. Everything they do and think seems violent and self-deprecatory. Or thoughtlessly sentimental. Men treat women as so much meat; parents scorn their own children. Women escape, like Evelyn in ""The Watcher,"" into insanity; most of the men drink excessively and abusively. Though many of the stories are told in the first person, none of the narrators has either the wit or the disinterestedness to be a credible reporter. Full of macho mayhem and put-downs of small-town and mining-town provincial life, these stories satisfy the conventional urban view of life in the barnyard. In ""Going to Russia,"" a teacher who has suffered a breakdown has piled his desk with books by ""Herzen, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Lermontov, Soloviev, Leontiev, Gorky, Chekov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Rozanov to keep me company in exile."" Unlike the Russians' stories, however, which are about the great questions of life and death, goodness and beauty, this Canadian's stories lack fundamental truthfulness.

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 1985
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin