An aging New Yorker reflects on his childhood growing up on a Canadian island in novelist Reeves’ (Bada Bing in Brooklyn, 2012, etc.) linked story collection.
Once a sparsely populated area given to wildlife, Manitoulin Island is now primarily a retreat for Midwestern tourists with little appreciation for its history. At least, that’s true according to Jim, a professor in Brooklyn who spent much of his childhood there. In the late 1950s, he and his parents moved to the island from Indiana in search of simplicity, renting out rooms in their cabin for cash. As an adult, Jim visits the island often, both in person and in memory, haunted by the joyful yet trying years he contended with his increasingly alcoholic father and aided his mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. But none of this is explained directly. Details are gradually revealed in nine candid stories, united by their lack of details (Jim is usually referred to only as “the man” or “professor”), the family’s golden retrievers, various objects (e.g., cigars and Kohl binoculars) and a structural formula that typically finds Jim in a present-day scenario conveniently similar to one from his boyhood. Warning a tourist about yellow jackets reminds him of when a customer entered a wasp-infested outhouse. Observing a potential suicide on the George Washington Bridge, he recalls helping his father retrieve a drowned corpse. In an uncharacteristic move, Jim unleashes snakes in a lodge as vindication against the owner, whose mother once stood his up at a lunch gathering. And in the pinnacle story, “Dire Straits,” young Jim secretly purchases a ferry ride to shorten a family trip that results in tragedy. Reeves delivers each tale in relentlessly spare prose that evokes Hemingway’s; often, however, he omits just enough detail to stir frustration. Likewise, sarcastic Jim is always wiser than those around him, and though he finds connections to strangers, he withholds information to avoid interaction. In “The Hoax,” for instance, Jim sips beer in a Manhattan bar where fellow drinkers ask whether he’s heard of their hometown, Muncie, Ind. “ ‘No,’ said the professor, whose parents graduated from Muncie Central High School.” And while Reeves proves himself adept at transitioning back and forth in time, the conceit becomes tiring and ostentatious. Still, his prose is sharp and subtle, his eye attuned to human frailty and offbeat humor.
A beautiful, tragic glimpse into isolation, family and coming of age.