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Purple Dog, Purple Prose

Patrick Lane,  Red Dog, Red Dog, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2008, HB 332 pp. $32.99

While I was teaching literature and creative writing courses in B.C.’s maximum security prisons during the 1980s, I brought in Patrick Lane’s much-anthologized poem “Thirty Below” as a teaching illustration of how writers ought to write about what they know. I read the poem aloud to my students, and to a man, they responded with stony silence followed by some less-than-polite muttering about a brown substance normally emitted from the hindquarters of male cattle.

“What’s wrong with this poem?” I asked.

“Well, for one thing,” one student grumbled, “Under Workers Compensation regulations, all outdoor industrial activities are supposed to cease when the temperature goes below minus 25F. For another, no company does log booming much below 10 below F because of how swiftly ice forms below that temperature. So at very least, the title of your poem is wrong.”

“And at best?”

“He’s saying this poem is full of bullshit,” said someone at the back of the room.

Since “Thirty Below” had seemed to me fairly exemplary in its particularity and detail about booming logs in the B.C. Interior in winter, I tried to defend it by other means: the vivid images, the unusual word choices. “What about these lines?” I said, and reread this part of the poem:

…Torment of metal

And the scream of saws.

Everything is hard. The sky

scrapes the earth at thirty below

and living things pull into pain

like grotesque children

thrown in the wrong season.

Someone curses.

Pulls his hand from the chain.

His skin has been left on steel,

blood frozen into balls.

He is replaced and the work goes on.

“I’ve never seen grotesque children” one student said, not willing to relent. “And how in hell do you throw a child in a wrong season? What kind of malarkey is this guy slinging?”

Before I could think of a defense, another student took a different tack. “Hey, listen,” he said. “Only a moron works green chain with his bare hands, even in good weather.  That just doesn’t happen.  A competent foreman wouldn’t let you on the line if you showed up for work without gloves. And does this guy think the companies keep a bunch of spare workers in a closet? They don’t replace injured greenchain workers until the next day. Everyone just has to bust their ass when someone gets hurt.”

Yet another student pointed out that there isn’t a lot of winter log-booming going on in the northern part of B.C. except at the coast, where the temperature never gets that cold.

“Lane grew up in Vernon,” I said, trying to do what I could to defend the integrity of a poet I respected enough to have parked him in front of  a bunch of murderers and bank robbers. “So presumably whatever he saw was somewhere in that area.”

That launched a ten-minute digression about where logs were boomed in southern B.C., with the north end of Lake Okanagan coming up as the most likely site. Once I stopped trying to defend the poem, I had to concede that my students were doing pretty much what I wanted them to do: talk in the specifics that good poetry can secure as firmly as science—or ought to. But my students weren’t willing to entertain the idea that Patrick Lane was someone they could take seriously on the subject of logging: he’d lied to them. I argued,  lamely, that he’d merely exaggerated to heighten the effect of the poem. They countered that he’d written about something that couldn’t have possibly happened, QED. On to the next poem, and make it a better one.

The preceding anecdote tells you pretty much what’s amiss in Patrick Lane’s 2008 novel, Red Dog, Red Dog: vivid writing that strays too frequently into the realm of exaggeration and bombast, the work of a tonal poet wildly overplaying his materials. The jacket copy writer at McClelland & Stewart seems to have taken his cue from Lane’s ego, announcing that “Patrick Lane, with his astonishing debut, suddenly introduces himself as a major novelist.”  Well, no.

There’s been some controversy elsewhere and elsewise since that confrontation with my students in jail about whether Lane’s body of work is a coherent and empathetic critique of British Columbia’s industrial working class and its propensity toward domestic, interpersonal and environmental mayhem in the face of capitalism’s ravaging exploitation of the province’s labour and its forests, or whether Lane is merely mythologizing violence. Since I grew up in what was arguably the most extreme centre of that industrial violence, Prince George, B.C., I’ve tended to concede that his descriptions have a gut-level if exaggerated accuracy without demanding–or making–a coherent critique. He’s at least writing about things that have a harmful existence, and not merely, as most poets seem to, rearranging the doilies on their reading chairs or the lint in their navels.

But if cornered, I would have a difficult time arguing that his work is inspirational, except for his perfectly charming 2004 gardening memoir There is a Season, which I read with interest, or his 2006 memoir of how he quit drinking, What the Stones Remember, A Life Rediscovered, which I took other people’s word on because I’d always rather enjoyed Lane’s company when he’d had a few.  Both of those books are egregiously inspirational, and are pitched commercially as such, almost as if Lane was reminding himself of just how many demons can sit on the business end of a chainsaw, and how many angels can be drowned in a table filled with beer glasses in a B.C. Interior bar around closing time.

Patrick Lane has always been something of a faux logger, notwithstanding George Woodcock’s fatuous 1980s biography that took him as a model of proletarian virtue. What can be said of Lane is that he’s a talented poet who’s made a career from grossing out sensitive academics, dentists’ wives, and CBC interviewers with adjective-driven industrial descriptions that constantly threaten to explode into a latter-day Canadian short version of James Dickey’s Deliverance. Lane himself has made a career as an academic, with a long association with the University of Victoria’s creative writing department. Don’t get me wrong about this. What else was he supposed to do? He couldn’t stay in the bush because it would have killed him, and making your way as a poet in this society is the hardest thing for any kind of writer to make a go of.  He did, and more power to him.

But Red Dog, Red Dog isn’t going to end up on the same shelf with Anne Frank’s Diary, and the book’s most compelling narrator, Alice, the already-dead six month old daughter of one of the book’s protagonists who speaks in a poeticized voice dangerously similar to that of Lane’s poet-wife Lorna Crozier, isn’t exactly Anne Frank. Red Dog, Red Dog is monotonally bleak,  its characters dysfunctional, violent and inarticulate—except for the dead infant and the omniscient narrator of much of the mayhem, who seems irresistibly drawn to slipping away from the action to reiterate the spare beauty of the landscapes surrounding the action or to genuflect about the dilapidated condition of rural out-buildings, and so on.

I guess my question about this novel is about the value of writing a novel about how miserable and bleak life is, and how violent and self-destructive human beings are, and never mind the Cormac McCarthy technical skills Lane has more or less mastered. Is it a decent artistic motive to write novels that make people suicidal about the possibilities of being a human being?

And here, I guess, I ought to reveal that I have a prejudice. It isn’t against Lane and McCarthy as prose technicians. It’s against the notion that it is the job of literature to tell us how shitty the world is and how awful human being can be.  We have, it seems to me, daily life and politics to demonstrate that.

Without getting all Dale Carnegie about it, I think it is the societal job of art—and of artists—to give us an inclusive sense of how beautiful the world can be, how remarkable human beings are. When I see a movie, or look at a painting, or read a work of fiction or poetry, my a priori demand is that it make me feel more hopeful about being a human being than when I started.

Red Dog, Red Dog fails that test miserably, and so my question is why, beyond the translation of his considerable skills as a poet to long fiction, Lane would write such a book. He’s a man who’s exorcised the demons of his past, at least officially, has a good income, a happy marriage, a wife who will cut the nuts off anyone who criticizes him. He also has the respect and sometimes the envy of most of his fellow poets in this country.  He even gets to spend time in his garden, for Christ’s sake, thinking deep thoughts, which he’s reasonably good at, in a mannered sort of way.

Is it the case that this is just a demonstration by Lane that he can deploy his poet’s skill set in a work of prose, impose them on a long piece of prose fiction? Let’s look at the opening paragraph of the book:

“It didn’t take long to bury me. He scrabbled at the thin till, gravel and chuck clay sprawling out from his cracked shovel and dull pick. The sweatband on his straw hat got darker and darker as he bent to his task, the air heavy with the silt of stars. Heat hung from his neck like a yoke on an ox. The hair on his fingers was matted wool, grains of earth glinting there in the fur, the sky fraught with moon.”

Okay. Are we all clear what “till” is? Glacial drift composed of an unconsolidated, heterogeneous mixture of clay, sand, pebbles, cobbles, and boulders.  How does one scrabble at till? To scrabble is to pull aside, usually with the hands. I suppose you could do this with a cracked shovel, provided it was clear which part of the shovel was cracked—the handle or blade. If the handle is cracked, you’re asking to get the blade across the side of your head. But what’s the pick for, particularly if the till is thin, which I take to mean few large cobbles and no boulders? And who sharpens a pick? A pick is a single and relatively blunt tine of steel, balanced by an equally blunt spade tine. No one sharpens picks, so they are, by definition, dull.

The next sentence is slightly more accurate despite the for-effect repetition of the word “darker”—one would assume that one would sweat more as one worked longer. But wait! There’s a point of view problem. The sweatband is inside the hat, and we are, I think, seeing him from above, and therefore the sweatband is difficult to pick out. Shouldn’t Lane be describing the neck-band on his collarless shirt, a detail that would help establish the Bonny and Clyde landscape he’s working? And who knows what “the silt of stars” might be?

The next sentence, “Heat hung from his neck like a yoke on an ox.” presents another awkward simile. If we’re talking about sweat here, it would drip, not hang. And heat doesn’t hang, it rises, particularly at night in Canada anywhere outside of Southern Ontario in deep summer.

“The hair on his fingers was matted wool” is similarly awkward. Presumably it’s the hair on back of his fingers between his knuckles (outer side). Even the hair on the knuckles of mountain gorillas doesn’t grow thick enough to mat. And fur isn’t hair, and we’re further confused about where it is, maybe because it is “fraught with moon.” By the way, if there’s intense moonlight, there are rarely an overabundance of  stars visible, and certainly not enough to product silt.

What I’m doing here is a little cruel, but there’s a point to it: this is massive overwriting, and it is making the prose physically inaccurate. Massive overwriting is usually a consequence of trying to make something more meaningful than it is, more active than is warranted. What you’ve got here is a man digging a shallow grave in soil that’s less than difficult to dig in. If you were drilling in solid rock you wouldn’t need this many words. And so you know, this sort of quasi-pornographic dwelling on detail isn’t my definition of poetry. Good poetry crosses from one point of meaning to another by the shortest distance possible that doesn’t sacrifice complexity. This is purple prose, not poetry.

Let’s look at another passage: top of page 89, chosen at random: Once when Father was shaking himself out of a drunken sleep, he told Tom the only thing he was afraid of was Mother killing him. He said he dreamed of her cutting his throat when he was passed out. There were nights he’d come home drunk from town and swear she was an apparition. He’d wonder aloud to Tom at how any of his children were made, let alone born. He told him that he hadn’t ridden their mother. It was some other man come out of him, a nightmared man he didn’t know who she’d tried to kill without success.

This one is different: less purple prose, but the same  inattention to physical detail.  Ill-educated drunks don’t tell anyone their dreams, particularly when they’re still half-bombed and barely awake. They can’t, first of all, because alcohol inhibits REM sleep. If you’re still half-drunk when you awaken, you haven’t been dreaming at all, which is why you feel so lousy. It’s also worth pointing out that the same sort of man, while dead drunk, likely can’t even pronounce the word “apparition”, and probably wouldn’t know what it meant to begin with. What he ought to know is that if a woman’s husband is a nasty drunk who comes home shitfaced, beats her up and then passes out, if she’s really serious about doing him, all she needs is a pillow over his face. Laundry soap is expensive, and slitting someone’s throat is messy.

And what’s with the euphemisms? No one, however drunk, tells their kid that they “ride” their mother, and if they did, the kid sure as hell wouldn’t understand what it meant. Nor would a kid understand what a “nightmared man” was, unless they’d been reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, which seems highly unlikely for the characters in this book.So what we have here is a poet addressing his readers, trying to make something poetic out of “too drunk to fuck” or “too drunk to remember it”.

You want me to do another one? Nah. I’ve made my point, which is that I could select any passage from this book and discover a writer trying to make Canadian Gothic out of mannerisms, adjectives and overwriting. Patrick Lane is a fine poet and a worthwhile presence in our cultural landscape. But he’s not a novelist, and he comes dangerously close to parody of himself with Red Dog, Red Dog. He should leave Canadian Gothic to Jane Urquhart, who can at least sing show-tunes to relieve the tedium.

2453 words, October 3, 2010

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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