The ghosts of Jack London, Thomas Wolfe, and Jack Kerouac all hover approvingly over a terrific first novel by Heighton, an Ontario poet and storywriter (Flight Paths of the Emperor, not yet published in the US, etc.).
There’s even a chapter entitled “Look Homeward, Angel” in this chronicle of the early life and education of Sevigne Torrins, a hopeful writer who grows up in Ontario’s Sault Sainte Marie on the shores of Lake Superior. In beautiful long, looping rhapsodic sentences studded with vigorous images, Heighton begins his tale with a lengthy account of Sevigne’s conflicted relationship with his father Sam, a ship’s cook, devout alcoholic, and effusive autodidact whose habit of mangled quotation from favorite books and authors stimulates and irritates the fledgling poet whom he’s affectionately (if casually) nurturing. Though Sam is a great character, Sevigne’s mother Martine, a vibrant beauty whose love-hate relationship with Sam ends in her departure to live in Cairo with a career diplomat, is less fully realized. In general Heighton does much better with male characters, especially as the story’s focus broadens to depict Sevigne’s undistinguished career as an amateur boxer, his brief trip to Egypt to re-bond with Martine and his older brother Bryon, and his entry into Toronto’s literary subculture, where he begins publishing work and builds relationships with a tough-minded poet (Una), the troubled singer (Mikaela, a.k.a. “Ike”) whom he almost marries, and—most interestingly—moody, mercurial fellow writer Ray, who plays Neal Cassaday to Sevigne’s Jack Kerouac. The climax comes with Sevigne’s retreat to live alone in a lighthouse on remote Rye island in northern Lake Superior: a tour-de-force account of loneliness, privation, and suffering that calls to mind London’s classic story of man-vs.-nature “To Build a Fire.”
One of the finest coming-of-age tales of recent years, and a splendid novelistic debut by a writer who seems to be just now entering a most impressive maturity.