Patrick Lane, Red Dog, Red Dog

Biased? Moi?

It's not that colleague, friend, and book club compadre David Leach was ripped off in the recent Victoria Book Prize bikini competition ("aagh! my eyes, my eyes!"), because when the formerly punky and puckish young poet Patrick Lane, now a septuagenarian fully five years past qualifying for benefits from the Canada Pension Plan, got around to publishing his first novel, you knew he'd do something special with it, and he certainly has.

But Leach's book Fatal Tide is also pretty special, though, as the good people at the Banff Mountain Book Festival saw fit to notice this year by giving it a Special Jury Prize (even if they decided to give the Oscar itself to Sid Marty's fascinating but flawed Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek).

But the Victoria Book Prize is an odd beast, lumping together five books written by people currently living in Victoria and aimed at adults (loosely defined as anyone not targetted by children's books, for whom there's a separate award). So you get three fiction books, a collection of poetry by the lovely and talented Patricia Young, plus some nonfiction thing about a guy dying in an extreme sports event.

(Mind you, I may need to read Dede Crane's nominated short story collection The Cult of Quick Repair, or her earlier novel Sympathy. Here's what she says on the Coteau Books site about finding her voice as a writer: "Moving to Vancouver Island was the final other catalyst. There was something about the power of the land here, in particular the trees, that urged voice. I know this may sound strange but unlike the east coast where the forest isn't wild anymore, the trees here still have stories to tell. And they want them told." Where does one start with a comment like that?)

It doesn't sound like I'm deferring judgment on Lane's novel, does it? Oh, it does? Right then.

I should have learned by now, but the stupid blurb made me resist this book fiercely:
A richly textured portrait of a time and a place [Vernon BC, 1958], filled with moments of harrowing violence and breathtaking descriptions of the natural world, Red Dog, Red Dog is a deeply moving novel about the legacies of the past and the possibilities of salvation that is marked by stunning writing and an utterly compelling and original story.
Now, if I want more cheese than could possibly be good for you, I go to Pagliacci's for a Hemingway Short Story and the chocolate cheesecake. A blurb like this, not so much what I go for.

Because of this blurb, I kept comparing it to other novels as I read, and it was distracting. Really I was thinking of those that reveal violence as a kind of family inheritance; that portray marginal agrarian communities; that include parents whose breakdowns are slow enough to span an adolescent's move into adulthood. The list wasn't a short one, even if Lane was doing a good job with the task. And there's not much sense that things happen in a "natural world," in most of the definitions of the term that make sense. And those gratuitous adverbs "richly," "deeply," and "utterly" really are, well, gratuitous.

Lane's a fine writer, and there's some wonderful prose in this book. His characters are complex and memorable (if at times either almost entirely inscrutable or seemingly automatic in their responses to stimuli), the violence is just as harrowing as promised by the blurb, and there's a note of authenticity to the portrayed existence that makes this a pretty special book.

But that blurb kept nagging at me. If it's not Patrick Lane (or "Pat Lane," as one hears his friends call him at readings and such like), with the machinery behind him to generate a bulletproof blurb like this from McClelland & Stewart -- I don't know that this book makes the award circuit. Good stuff, sure, but there's plenty of good stuff out there.

And since I'm being unfair already, here's a snippy editorial note to end on: On page 126, when Lane's talking about Western movies, he mentions John Wayne as a key image, plus "Henry Ford somewhere out there waiting." I'm assuming he meant John Ford, but maybe there's a rightness to mentioning Henry here that I missed....


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