Bruce Geddes’s debut novel deftly deals with the dilemma of living in a chaotic present while also having to cope with the uncertainties of the past and the unpredictability of the future. The book has patches of dark humour but is also suffused with real pathos and recognition of human frailty.
The narrator is Richard McKitrick (nicknamed “Tricky”) a not very successful immigration lawyer in his mid-forties who drinks too much and whose marriage to Ines, formerly a celebrated poet in her native Columbia who has now settled into a mundane life with Richard in Toronto, is not going well.
Richard grew up in the working class city of Wanstead (a thinly disguised Windsor, Ontario) where his father, Gord, was the number two man in the UCF, an automobile manufacturing union. Gord was killed in a car accident some 25 years earlier and Richard fled Wanstead to start a new life in Toronto.
As the novel opens Richard gets a call from his cousin Tony, an unstable loner whose own father disappeared before he was born and who idolized Gord. It seems that Tony has been working on a conspiracy theory that Gord was actually murdered by the founder and president of the union, Al Forzante, who is still holding the reins of power at the age of ninety.
The book is full of fathers and father surrogates and explores the complex issues of loyalty versus honest appraisal in these relationships.
Tony considered Gord as his father but he also has an adult son, Bernie, from his teenage years, whom he rarely sees. Al Forzante is Richard’s godfather and Richard is instinctively reluctant to entertain Tony’s murder theory.
Richard is also step-father to Ines’s son, the troubled thirteen year-old Sagipa. Things get worse for Richard when Sagipa’s long estranged father, Manolo, a former Columbian revolutionary leader, emigrates to Canada and his presence begins to threaten Richard and Ines’s already rocky marriage.
The UCF union itself takes on a certain paternal role as well.
Sagipa and Manolo provide much of the humour in the book. Each is trying to prepare for an uncertain future in their own eccentric way. Sagipa is convinced that China is the rising superpower and is preparing for it by reflexively parroting Chinese propaganda and learning Mandarin. Manolo is re-inventing himself as a capitalist self-help guru writing a business book called Guerilla Warfare for Small Businesses, based on Che Guevara’s revolutionary tactics.
Geddes has an obvious love for his characters, even Tony’s bitter and racist mother and Al Forzante himself who is more nuanced than the stock villain he could have been portrayed as. There is a large cast of characters in the book and all of them, even the most minor, are vividly drawn.
Ultimately, the question of whether or not Tony’s conspiracy theory holds water isn’t exactly central to the novel. It is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a “McGuffin,” a plot device that reveals the drama’s real concerns.
Richard is mired in his unsatisfying present, passively ignoring the past and the future both. Tony forces him to re-evaluate his life by looking at his own father in a more realistic light.
Although set in 2009, the book roams back in time to Richard and Tony’s youth in the 1980s as well as to Al and Gord’s various union triumphs, often based on real Windsor labour battles. Al and a teenage Gord first meet during a strike that is based on the 1945 Ford strike where Windsor citizens used hundreds of parked cars to barricade the plant.
Geddes does a good job of bringing the large historical set pieces to life and is equally good at drawing characters through small, telling details. I look very much forward to his next novel.
The Higher the Monkey Climbs by Bruce Geddes 231pp, Now Or Never Publishing