Proud Desperation

The Stories of Guy Vanderhaeghe

We first meet Ed in a bathroom, drunkenly molding his shaving cream into a goatee and addressing the mirror as a B-movie Genghis Khan. He’s hiding from his wife Victoria, who expects him to be dressed and ready for a New Year’s Eve party. Ed is unemployed, often drunk, a huge disappointment to the woman who once saw him as a project but now realizes that whatever potential she nursed in him has long since curdled. By evening’s end he’ll humiliate himself and destroy the marriage.

In two short stories (“Sam, Soren and Ed” and the title story from the collection Man Descending) and the 1984 novel My Present Age, Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe traces Ed’s fall from mediocrity into an abyss of self-pity, rage and drink in a first person ramble as funny as it is sad. He’s a liar and a fantasist, but as a narrator, he is anything but unreliable. Overbearing and narcissistic, yet so acutely aware of his myriad shortcomings that he anticipates his acquaintances’ disappointment in him before they feel it themselves, Ed is a precise cataloguer of his downfall. He is honest only with himself and the reader, so every outrageous deceit, every desperate and cringe-inducing attempt to drag Victoria back, is recounted with grim, clear-eyed gallows humor. He’s not so much self-deprecating as self-annihilating, determined not to lose the one thing that allows him to believe he has the right to his arrogant self-regard. He’s always known Victoria could have done better, and the story begins at the moment that he finally realizes that she’s known it for a while, too. Wrecking the marriage is a formality (she’d checked out years before), but Ed is not one to concede defeat when he smells a chance for the moral high ground he’s always claimed but never occupied.

The short stories are raucous fun, loser’s tales told for laughs by the loser as he watches himself going down. They’re also insular, so completely in Ed’s head that they rarely rise above the merely hilarious. My Present Age goes substantially deeper: Vanderhaeghe populates the end game of Ed’s marriage with a parade of characters as smart (or smarter, or at least as doggedly tenacious) as he is, and most of them have his number. The jokes are still there, afloat in a miasma of dread and drunkenness, the laughs barbed with Ed’s growing realization that he’s never fooled anyone.

The novel opens with Victoria gone and Ed in a tailspin, subsisting on candy bars, takeout fried chicken and Scotch, listening to The Beast, his upstairs neighbor, talk about him on a call-in radio show. He’s refused to cooperate in divorce proceedings, taking particular pleasure in needling Victoria’s lawyer Benny, his old college roommate. Benny was a fair-weather radical whose sojourn in a commune ended the day he knocked up a fellow communard. Ed was a self-righteous scold in what passed for the counterculture in Saskatchewan (the revolution came late to the Canadian provinces), and he delights in reminding his friends that their younger, more hirsute selves would be sorely disappointed by their present incarnations.

When Victoria schedules a meeting then disappears, Ed realizes that something’s up. He learns (from “Hideous Marsha,” another old college chum) that Victoria is pregnant, and that her new beau disapproves. He launches a search, aided by Rubacek, one of his students from “Every Bloody Second Fucking Tuesday,” the adult education creative writing course he was too embarrassed to confess he’s unqualified to teach. Rubacek is laboring over a novel — a novel he won’t read in class, as he fears plagiarism — about the criminal past he brings up constantly but won’t actually discuss.

The search for Victoria is a mock epic reversal of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Ed and Rubacek cruising frozen Canadian streets, Ed sipping coffee and rum from a thermos as they look for a battered Beetle in hotel parking lots. They’re not running away from women who want to “sivilize” them, they’re begging to be brought back into the fold. And in a dazzling passage, Ed adds the final chapter Twain’s novel always needed.

When, several years before, he was briefly institutionalized, he began to actually write the novel he’d been using for years as an excuse for avoiding a real job. It wasn’t the arty attack on his generation of would-be revolutionaries he’d contemplated: no, to his amazement, he spurted out a Western potboiler. “Sam Waters had been a plainsman, a buffalo hunter, a wind-drinker, a free man,” it began, and though Ed realized Sam was the most infantile sort of fantasy projection, he came to rely on him, to think of him less as a character than an accomplice, the Ed who didn’t whine, drink and torment everyone he knows. When Ed returns to the original manuscript — the one produced just after a bout of electroshock — he finds a brief scene in which Sam meets a foulmouthed, reeking rummy in a saloon. Telling stories of his capture at Vicksburg before offering his services as pimp, he finally tells Sam, “I know this here territory. You want sump’n, a woman, or any sich thing, jest ast fur me. Ever’body a-knows me. I kin scare up a good time. Ever’body knows me, Jest ast after Huck Finn.”

The short stories that make up the rest of Man Descending suggest that Vanderhaeghe has always been more John Updike than Philip Roth: as good as they sometimes are, they have none of the energy and hilarity of the Ed stories. He followed My Present Age with a series of perfectly respectable books, historical fictions set in the Canadian plains, all wintry emotions and evenhanded storytelling. My Present Age is anything but respectable: it’s a novel that wears its desperation proudly. At its most harrowing, it has the air of confession. If there was anything autobiographical in Ed, one hopes for his sake that Vanderhaeghe strangled it as he completed the novel.