ROMANCE NOIR: Review of Grant Buday’s A Sack of Teeth

By John Harris | June 15, 2003

Grant Buday has written two reasonably enjoyable novels, White Lung (1999) and A Sack of Teeth (2002). He has written three if you include Monday Night Man (1995), which is a sequence of stories connected by common characters and presented in chronological order. All three are realistic, third-person, plot-and-character-driven romances. In them, more prominently from earlier to later, female protagonists strive to realize dreams of fulfillment through travel, adventure, art, and love in a world of frightened, broken, wounded, ignorant, and/or ineffectual men. Usually these men are loving but weak – they have castrated themselves, succumbed to fear or despair and withdrawn into drugs, booze, racing forms, Dinky Toys, religion, and the use of prostitutes. Readers can identify with the heroines’ striving, can hope for their success, and at the endings of the novels find that success minimally achieved or at least likely.

This description of Buday’s books is a simplification. For example, in Monday Night Man there are no major female protagonists. There are wives, in minor roles, who have lost their struggles with the men they usually still love, and have left to raise the children themselves and/or find new lovers, and to pursue the dreams that could not be pursued with their husbands. In Monday Night Man the focus is on the men, their dysfunction, and the slowly extinguishing spark of human responsibility that never goes out but is so weak as to seem irrelevant. The world of the men is comic, not romantic. The comedy is dark. No one can laugh too hard and long at the antics of the terminally dysfunctional.

In White Lung there is a hero, Epp. He is the idiot-savant friend of Klaus, who is the main character and sort of villain of the piece. Like Darlene, Klaus’s wife and the book’s heroine, Epp tries to bring Klaus out of his alcoholism and withdrawal into the dream of establishing a bakery – a dream that Klaus himself has originated and passed on to his friend and wife, and now tries to subvert. In this novel, the wives are more prominent than they are in Monday Night Man, but still (except for Darlene) they play minor roles. The focus is on the men and the disintegration of their once-functioning world, Bestbuy Bakery, a disintegration that is described in convincing detail. Anyone interested in the progress of North American Free Trade and its effects on the local will be fascinated by the battle over Bestbuy. But what the men don’t see, and the women do see, is that the collapse of Bestbuy is a blessing. Free trade is not the elephant in the living room. The fuck-ups that are really important, and that make the men so fearful of losing positions and salaries, originate in their personal lives, not in the bakery, and are illustrated in their relationships with wives and children, not in their work. Any resolution of their work-site problems would simply prolong the deeper agony. At the end it seems that the women will get their way. Bestbuy is finished. Epp has fled to pursue a new (and of course characteristically unlikely) dream of adventure and travel, and Darlene has teamed up with a lesbian friend to start a small bakery.

Again the situations are comic, though the stories of Epp and Darlene have elements of romance. Klaus torches the bakery that Epp and Darlene are after, hoping to get them off his back but succeeding only in driving the price of the place low enough so Darlene can afford it. Wong, manager of Bestbuy, sees himself as a general leading troops into battle. He has a Mauser in his desk that he toys with in the course of giving colour to the fantasy. He has named his two kids Enfield and Weston. One day he shoots himself in the hand. Epp, who is short and wiry, looks for love in Vancouver’s Filipo clubs, where he makes an impression one Christmas by going on the karaoke stage and singing Jose Feliciano’s version of Feliz Navidad. But he always runs into the language barrier when it comes to getting a date. This comedy is funnier than that of Monday Night Man because the characters are slightly more in control of their actions. But still it is dark comedy.

Only in A Sack of Teeth is there a heroine in the forefront, Lorraine, married to an older controlling and unsympathetic (though dedicated) man Ray, watching her dream of going to France slipping away as she struggles to raise a son, make her needs known to her preoccupied husband, and deal with the suicide of Antoine, a basement-suite tenant who is French and who she comes to love as a manifestation of her dream. In this novel the woman comes to the fore, and comedy disappears altogether to be replaced by romance.

Buday’s books are enjoyable, the directions of the stories clear, the characters and situations real and easy to identify with. But they have not been widely read. Buday is published by small BC presses, and not much reviewed. The reasons are not that Buday is too far from the Toronto publishing scene or that he is too conventional a writer to appeal to academic critics who might front his work to a larger readership. The reasons are, first, that Buday’s view of society and human nature is bleak. The dysfunction of society is endemic and extreme. Life for all of Buday’s characters is a series of body blows, starting at birth. People are born deformed, mongoloid, cretinous, crippled, diseased, or into dysfunctional families, or to abusive, psychotic, preoccupied or battling parents. When they go to school, they are faced with abusive teachers, psychotic schoolyard bullies, and mindless bureaucracy. In adult life, they work at mindless jobs, battling more bureaucracy, ground up in labor/management politics and the vast conspiracies of global economics. Their bosses, fellow-workers, and neighbors are psychos. And throughout their lives, most people’s luck is plain bad – Lorraine’s dreams of France, for example, come by pure chance to be attached to Antoine who, though he loves her, has a secret past as a Nazi collaborator, a past that drives him to “abandon” her through suicide and thus cast a shadow on her dream. At some stage in life, as Buday sees it, all men and most women weaken and withdraw from life into drugs, alcohol, and other compulsions.

Comedy and romance in such an environment are difficult. Readers seek comedy that produces comfortable laughter, not snickers, and romance that offers a clear promise of happiness. The words “mordant” and “noirish” are often applied by critics to Buday – as they are to, say, Mordecai Richler. And Buday’s world is Richleresque – the world of Duddy Kravitz, of Cocksure, of The Incomparable Atuk, or the world of the Gurskys in Solomon Gursky Was Here. But in Richler there exist functioning enclaves of the sane and loving: Virgil and Annette in Duddy Kravitz, or Moses, Callaghan, and Katherine in Solomon Gursky. These enclaves simply don’t exist in Buday. Only the women exist as the measure of good, and they act alone, often with little sense of their own validity.

Second, Buday’s version of romance is unusual, maybe even new. In Buday, the ability to manifest courage, love, and idealism is a female trait only. No male has this ability, or provides the means of escape for a woman, as males often do in the novels of most romance writers including even resolutely realistic ones like Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood. In Buday, all males are dysfunctional and threatening – in the sense that their dysfunction is a burden on women and that it is the main feature of the society that men dominate and in which women have to make their way. Buday is writing romance. It is for men, in the sense that it features men seeking women, but as it develops it focuses less on their search and more on the object of the search – heroic women.

It may take readers a while to take hold of this concept of heroism as largely feminine. It fits in with contemporary feminist theory, but news of that theory has not yet hit the streets. Maybe Buday will take it there.

But not just yet. The third reason that Buday is not yet popular is that he has not yet mastered his technique. He is excellent at dialogue and description, but he has trouble telling his stories. His weaknesses are inner monologue and flashbacks. He telescopes flashbacks, losing readers in a labyrinth of the pasts of various characters. He has a kind of Hugh Hood obsession with settings and with the past – in Buday’s case with the details of life in Vancouver from the war to the present. His well-conceived plots move slowly because of the burden of these details.

A Sack of Teeth is an extreme case of Buday’s problems with narration. It staggers to its ending. This is disappointing because White Lung, the earlier novel, is better told, the flashbacks more under control. Perhaps the shift away from comedy noir towards romance noir has thrown Buday temporarily off balance. Yet the shift has worked in other ways. White Lung may be Buday’s best novel, but A Sack of Teeth features his best character, Lorraine, the novel’s heroine and central character.

The plot of A Sack of Teeth is familiar in its general outline (a woman struggles against a controlling husband to achieve her dream of freedom, attaching this dream to an alternate lover), and its details are original and intriguing (the alternate lover proves to be a monster – though a contrite one — who provides her with the means to achieve the dream while at the same time casting a very dark shadow of reality on the dream).

The heroine, Lorraine, has made it through a difficult childhood. Her father has been declared missing in action at Dieppe and is presumed dead, and her mother, loving him, has disintegrated. By the time Lorraine is in high school, her mother is a full-blown psychotic and must be institutionalized, leaving Lorraine alone in the apartment with dreams of finding her father or at least of getting away, of seeing France. She practices her French and tries to ignore harassing loser males from school and the bar down the street (spillovers from Monday Night Man and White Lung) who, knowing the mother’s fate, smell blood on the daughter.

She graduates, gets a job as a waitress, and along comes Ray, 15 years older, a veteran who served in the army during the occupation, an engineer graduated from UBC. They marry and she gets pregnant, producing a son, Jack. Ray offers stability and security, but at a price. He demands control. He produces 5-year plans for the family; these plans include at least one more pregnancy for Lorraine. Objective: a daughter. He has arranged his sex life into sex for family, with Lorraine, and sex for release, with Charlene, a secretary at the engineering company that employs him. He denies his Jewish background, denouncing all religion, worshipping only science and technology. The beauty and power of the products of science and technology turn him on – he gets erections from watching war movies and newsreels showing the shadows of B-52 bombers passing over the Vietnamese jungles, and from driving his T-bird. Because he is an overgrown boy, he has no trouble relating to and loving Jack. But he has trouble with Lorraine. Her resistance incapacitates him sexually. He fears her dream, the globe in the living room that represents that dream, Jack’s interest in the globe, and above all the fucking Frenchman in the basement who raises canaries and sits in the back yard with Lorraine drinking wine with her and filling her head with stupid ideas.

The struggle comes to a head on the day after Labor Day in 1965. On that day Jack goes off to his first day of school with Mr. Gough, whose name, Gough wants the students to clearly understand, rhymes with tough. Jack’s trauma – being dragged out of his childhood in six agonizing hours by a psychotic teacher– is traced through the novel in chapters that alternate with the chapters dealing with Lorraine and Ray.

The first problem with the book is that Jack’s story makes no contribution to or comment on the story of Lorraine and Ray. It’s almost totally gratuitous, and it regularly brings the main action to a stop.

Lorraine’s story moves convincingly to the possibility of resolution. The reader sees that she is being pushed to the wall and will be forced to make a choice between Ray’s dream and her own. Antoine’s gift – a suitcase stuffed with banknotes that also contains a sack of gold teeth and a photo of him in his German uniform, cattle cars full of Jews bound for the death camps in the background –gives her the power to do this. It also causes her to question her dream, and dreams in general.

Second problem: you don’t get to see Lorraine making her choice. You see her last on a kid’s raft on a neighborhood pond. She is disposing of the sack of teeth. She sees herself as Charon, ferrying Antoine and her father across to the afterworld. She dumps the sack of teeth, has a swim, dries off in the sun, and then proceeds to the other side. There is symbolism here that, though I can’t see it, may indicate what she is going to do. Cross the ocean to France? But a pattern of action must be resolved by action; Lorraine must do something that moves her closer to facing and making her choice. Or she must make it.

Meanwhile, there is the inner-monologue. Jack’s thoughts are irrelevant to the main story. Mostly he thinks about things like pop bottles – their value when found empty, the tastes of their contents, the coolers in which the full ones are kept, etcetera. Jack is an attractive child, and that feature explains Lorraine’s selfless love for him (even though it may threaten her dream) and Ray’s selfish love. But the parents’ attitudes to their son play only a small role in the unfolding of their situation and the possibility of its resolution.

Ray is a boring character. His thoughts are a kind of random association, like the talk of a gabby person at a party who will not engage. On his way to Charlene’s (you are naturally eager to have a look at her) Ray fantasizes about doing it with her in his T-bird on the desert around Las Vegas, which makes him think of similar arousals with German women who, during the occupation, would do anything for a pack of smokes, which in turn reminds him of his visit to the French province of Lorraine, which reminds him of how he met Lorraine, which leads him to wonder why Lorraine was so moody and whether Frank Sinatra had similar problems with Mia Farrow. There is no escape from this except to skip pages until you run into Lorraine again.

Lorraine, on the other hand, ruminates under considerable pressure. She is passionately in love with Antoine, then shocked by his gift to her. She is growing to hate her husband, and is given the perfect excuse to leave him or force concessions from him. She has to make a decision, and is moving in that direction. As a review by George Murray in The Globe and Mail put it, “she is broken down and reconstructed by her own hand.”

If A Sack of Teeth is not as good a novel as White Lung, it indicates a deeper commitment to romance, which may be a mode more suited to Buday. He has rummaged through the detritus of downtown Vancouver for almost too long, and is now moving to the suburbs where more interesting people live. Lorraine, for example, is described in the Globe review as “a stunning character in the mould of the great literary heroines.” I agree, with the proviso that it is better to hear what women have to say about great heroines (Lorraine, for example, finds Madame Bovary to be a dull and stupid woman). Lorraine is the creation of a man who does more (or is it less?) than love women. He worships them.

If Buday moving toward writing black romances for intelligent (i.e. realistic) men, it would be interesting to know why. There may be a clue in Golden Goa (2000), a travel memoir. Here he portrays himself as a kind of moody, incurably cheap, prickly, left-handed, lapsed Catholic, recently divorced, and as a directionless Bruce Chatwin, exploring India, which appears to him as an eastern version of Vancouver’s East End. Like Chatwin he is seeking wisdom, in the customs of India and in experiences of previous travelers in the same place who have become legends.

Unlike Chatwin, Buday is also looking for a woman. He finds one in his guide at the Rajneesh Ashram, a sixty-year-old woman who tells him, “Relax. We’re not all zombies.” He finds two in the Meehan sisters, thirty-something twins who like to drink. A local tries to buy them from him. And above all he finds one in Monica, whose parents run a boarding house in Goa. She makes fruit salads and Nescafe for travelers. She is beautiful, moody, and witty:
“What do you want?”
“Thirty cups of Nescafe. No sugar.”
“Sorry. Only have twenty cup Nescafe, no sugar.”
Buday considers courting Monica who, with her mother, clearly has plans for him, but he is paranoid about her motives, about being ripped off, about how devastated he will be if she leaves him. So he leaves. On a subsequent trip he tries to find her, but she is gone. He sees, close to her home, a woman, pretty, plump, like Monica. Maybe it is Monica. They slow down as if to speak, then walk past one another, silently. A chance has been lost.

It was different with the legendary traveler that Buday is tracking, 16th-century Portuguese poet Luis Camoens, author of the Lusiads, Portugal’s national epic. Camoens spent eleven years in Goa, sixteen years altogether in the East. He was exiled after stabbing a man after being denied the love of his life, Catherine de Ataide. He gets into trouble in Goa too, and spends some years in China before returning to Goa. Through all this he is working on his poem. In China he takes up with a young and sympathetic Oriental woman, Dinamene, but leaves her when he returns to Goa. On his return, he learns that Catherine is dead, and writes his great sonnet to her. He buys a woman, Luisa Barbara, in the slave market, makes her his mistress, falls in love with her, and writes more poetry. After a few years, fearing that the Lusiads would vanish unpublished and unread, he returns to Portugal without Luisa. The Lusiads appears in 1572, and eight years later Camoens dies of plague.

Is Camoens Grant Buday’s alter-ego? Is Buday too seeking the ideal woman, one who has been lost or perhaps driven out of his life because of his compulsions, one of which may be writing? Or one who can sustain him in his compulsion? If this is Buday’s quest, we’re likely to encounter more Lorraines before the epic is finished.

3223 words, June 15, 2003


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