These four related fictions follow a British boy’s coming-of-age and his older self enduring a world that rarely lives up to his standards.
In the opening novella, Medals and Prizes, Robert Forde first appears in 1950s England at age 14 as he shares with his best friend a love of words, art, and jazz records. After university, Forde immigrates to Canada and turns to writing. He receives an Order of Canada medal the day he visits a fellow novelist suffering from Parkinson’s whose career Forde is asked to help revive. In the short story “Ceazer Salad,” Forde walks about Ottawa and rails at misused apostrophes and other abominations after his latest book is panned. The title story shows him with a travel group venting his spleen during a guided tour of Turkish cultural attractions. Both short stories also feature Forde’s wife, Sheila, and the combative affection of their conversation, recalling Nick and Nora Charles of Hammett’s Thin Man. Metcalf (An Aesthetic Underground, 2015, etc.), a highly regarded Canadian writer born in 1938 whose life resembles Forde’s, also brings to mind variously Wodehouse, Waugh, Kingsley Amis, and Kyril Bonfiglioli. The jewel of the collection is the other novella, Lives of the Poets, in which Forde plays willing ear as the granddaughter of a 19th-century poet reminisces over the course of a long slow day and night in page after page of marvelous dialogue, the two discovering their shared tastes for precision in language, forgotten rituals, obscure artifacts, and drinking.
Metcalf applies wit, humor, and fine writing to themes of friendship, culture, commitment, and integrity—and all the petty things in life that seek to quash them. This is a book that could restore anyone’s faith in the pleasure of reading.