Tim Bowling, The Marvels of Youth

Are "maudlin" and "melodramatic" always terms of complaint?

Reader, I was overcome again and again while reading Tim Bowling's The Marvels of Youth, and to some extent I'm powerless either to explain why or to resist the novel's charms, but regardless, as usual I've found a way to ramble on at length.

Short summary: Bowling's narrator is nearing 60 and living a solitary life in Edmonton, long after a childhood in a fishing family along the Fraser River (Ladner, BC, but unnamed in the novel). When he hears that the owner of the town's long-gone comics shop has died, he's flung back into a particularly catastrophic year for the town and for his own life. Specifically, we flash back to 1975, the year Sean turned 11, which to give you a sense of the narrator's character and priorities he describes as "that bittersweet spot of time between the release of Jaws and the release of the first Star Wars movie" (p2).

Illicit affairs, commercial fishing, obsessive reading of comics (the Marvels of youth), childhood's intensity, racial conflict, the looming shadow of adulthood: this is an overstuffed, detail-rich novel of a brief period of time in a highly specific small place, illuminating one version of the way that childhood leads to manhood, that fragments of childhood persist into one's manhood. Most crucially, The Marvels of Youth illustrates the deep, simple truth that life is lived forward but experienced backward, through memory.

And for me, it's astonishing.

(And also, now I'll need to go read everything else on my shelves by Tim Bowling, which is quite a bit. In rereading my own reviews of other Bowling books, I found myself both startled and horrified to see how much I complained about The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory, and the Death of Wild Culture when I read it sixteen years ago. I've been recalling The Lost Coast with great fondness, for a long time, and over the years I've recommended it to an awful lot of readers, so clearly it's time for me to write something new about that book, and maybe even . I've confessed before to having been wrong in an initial review, and I suspect I'll feel the same here. As so often in Bowling's works, time will tell.)

The thing is, though, my experience of the novel was complicated by the fact that I've made The Marvels of Youth my pick for this reading cycle of the Beer and Books club, which has as one of its only rules that you can't previously have read the book you're choosing. This always makes me anxious, but the guys were tolerant when I made them read Bowling's poetry collection Circa Nineteen Hundred and Grief recently four years ago, the only book of poetry we've done in our seventeen years together, so it made sense that we'd go on to try some of his prose in February 2025.

The first chapter, though, I found myself worrying that I'd best pull the chute and swap out this novel.

Immediately, the narrator's voice in The Marvels of Youth felt calculated to trip the guys' traditional intolerance of self-consciously literary voice, right from its first sentence: "Lari Edison, doyen of the Haunted Bookshop, is dead, and my eyes return at once to their tenth year of seeing. Kierkegaard wrote..." (p1). After the Kierkegaard quotation, and after "doyen" and "their tenth year of seeing," the second sentence also contains the phrase "the crowded arras of the years." And yeah, Kierkegaard on the first page.

The first chapter is the book's longest, too, its 36 pages making it more than twice the length of the next longest; only 8 of the other 26 chapters are more than 10 pages long, three of them only 2 pages long. My recollection was that it also has the greatest number of patches where the narrator's self-reflections get stilted, where the prose gets purple, but when I went back to look for some examples, oddly they no longer glinted off the page at me as they had on my first reading.

In short, my sense is that the first chapter is a test. If you're willing to persist through that, through its length and its mostly uncompromising narrative voice, the book gets more comfortable.

On the other hand, the narrator also turns out to be someone you shouldn't be comfortable with. Bowling's narrator is a flawed, damaged guy who's almost 60, whose childhood was marked both with various privations and trials, and with some bad acts on his own part. Through it all, he has come out an intensely thoughtful man, though one whose life is partly trapped in memories of this one particular year in his childhood, and his thoughts on manhood and aging are thoughts that I'm more than ready to sit with.

And so before I really noticed, what I took to be off-putting prose became richer in its effects, more varied, more evocative. As at least one other reviewer has noted, you're never far from recalling Dylan Thomas, Alistair Macleod, Wordsworth, so many other writers who've dwelled on childhood from the perspective of manhood. (That phrase "spot of time" in the quotation above, for example, is Wordsworth's, even if the novel doesn't say so.) For readers of a certain age, however, especially for men of a certain age, there's no need to be familiar with any of that other writing. Once you choose to keep reading past the relatively uncompromising first chapter, The Marvels of Youth reads as a natural text, rather than a bookish one, and you'll find echoes of your own self there.

And also, comics! The Marvels of Youth offers lots of thoughtfulness about the genre and its history, particularly the life and work of Jack Kirby. As a kid, I didn't read comics much myself, spending my stray money instead on snacks, 45s, and LPs, and saving the rest to blow at the Chase, Salmon Arm, and Armstrong fall fairs, but it was one of many reasons that I so loved sleepovers at my friend Matt Jessop's house. Matt had stacks and stacks of them, and we'd read in silence for hours (in amongst all the other stuff we'd get up to). Still, their history etc is something I've only come to learn about in recent years, so Bowling's perspective on Kirby was newer to me than it would be to more serious comics readers. Basically, Bowling explains that the violence and imagination of comics through the 50s to 70s has much to do with the wartime experiences of many creators, Kirby in particular. As such, Kirby was something like an accessible version of our grandfathers (in my case) or fathers (in Bowling's), who suffered terribly through World War Two and then didn't want to talk about it.

There's a tiny version of 70s nerd culture, too, in the town's Haunted Bookshop, and in the little cluster of trouble around the draft dodger living in the town's long-inaccurate clock tower. The discussions of why to prefer one comics series over another, especially the galactic vs the superhero, were terrific, and I found kind of hilarious the stoned fact-checking of American history details by the draft dodger's circle. Bowling often sticks close to fishing, working from the perspective of a child who's coming to know increasingly intimately the adult world of environmental resource extraction, and while that expertise underpins a fair bit of the action here, it's less central than in other books, and in some ways, this really does turn out to be a novel about coming to understand comics. (Maybe you won't believe me after you finish, though, and that's fine.)

The closing remark in the acknowledgements section is important: "I wish to thank my family, in Edmonton and on the West Coast. Your willingness to understand that fiction is indeed fiction is much appreciated" (p240). Anyone who's read Bowling before knows that he grew up in Ladner, as does this novel's narrator, and both of them turned 11 in 1975. Bowling's own father was named Harold, but nicknamed both Heck and Ghost; all three of those names belong to the narrator's father in The Marvels of Youth. The narrator's childhood nickname is "Monk," and as I learned in his memoir The Lost Coast, Bowling had this same nickname. While Sean is single and isolated, though, Bowling is married with three children. And so "fiction is indeed fiction," absolutely, but the novel grows out of a deep determination to make it all as real as possible.

As for the question I opened this piece with, how to take evaluative terms like "maudlin" or "melodramatic," Bowling's narrator has an answer:

"A man has a heart, and if he has lived in places he loves and among people he loves or finds intriguing, then nostalgia's not a pejorative word that substitutes for mawkish or unrealistic. It's perfectly natural to look back fondly on the past as one grows older, and doing so does not mitigate one's pleasure in the present or interest in the future" (p101).

This novel hasn't been reviewed very often, which I find both strange and unfortunate.  I'm assuming that this lack of reviews is because the book is keyed so closely to readers in late middle age, especially men, and a great many reviewers don't fit that demographic, but who knows. Alberta Views has a brief thoughtful review, and Theo Dombrowski has written a long wild commentary for The British Columbia Review that's very good even if it reads more like Bowling's own prose than it needed to. Among other things, Dombrowski offers perhaps the shortest possible summary of this book: "through this glowing language, Bowling tells a simple story. A man recalls one year of his boyhood in a small fishing town (corresponding to Ladner) at the mouth of the Fraser River."

It's going to take at least another read before I can make sense fully of what this book means to me, but it has hit hard.

Speaking with a friend today, who grew up less than 30 kilometres from Ladner, I ventured to recommend this novel for the first time, and tried to explain why I was so compelled by The Marvels of Youth's depiction of these two times in Sean's life. After a preamble that involved recalling this friend's once asking author Steven Price what was wrong with Price, to mean that he could enjoy torturing his readers by writing something as painful as Into That Darkness (a moment that has assumed truly mythic stature for the Beer and Books crew), he asked, "Why do people read for pain? What is it about difficult lives, and poverty, that makes it more worthwhile than all the other possible stories?"

That's a paraphrase, of course, but in any case, I didn't have a ready answer. I parried and deflected, refusing to answer for anyone else while yet defending this particular novel, but in general I agree with him. I don't enjoy reading about privation, violence, suffering, death. More than that, reading about graphic violence feels like a violation: my default reaction always is utterly to reject what I'm reading, not hating the text but annihilating it.

But as I said eventually, a novel that speaks to me--its place, its time, its characters, its prose, its rhythms--speaks to me. That's somehow even more true where it's marked by such difficulties, to the point that there's something special about a novel that sheds some light on how one's life can be shaped by them. I live a deeply privileged life at this point, but we all have pasts, and other roads might've been taken leading who knows where, and (truism alert!) you never really know what's going on with someone else.

Eventually we had to joke that neither of us was paying the other enough to be our therapist, because we are men, damn it, men, but it was an excellent conversation.

Anyway, the first chapter of The Marvels of Youth will probably break a lot of potential readers, and it may limit its reach and its audience. I'm delighted that its publisher Wolsak & Wynn didn't fuss about it, though, because honestly this has instantly become one of my favourite novels. It won't be for everyone, but in the words of Alexander Keith beer's ancient marketing slogan, "Those who like it, like it a lot."


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