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Guy Vanderhaeghe.

Toronto, Gage Publishing, c1982.
230pp, cloth, $16.95.
ISBN 0-7715-97134.

Grades 12 and up.
Reviewed by Boh Kinczyk.

Volume 10 Number 4.
1982 November.

The thirty-year-old protagonist of "Man Descending," the title piece in Guy Vanderhaeghe's collection of stories, recalls "paging through one of those gossipy newspapers that fill the news racks at supermarkets" and coming across a disturbing article about an infant prodigy in eighteenth century Germany. Reading the Bible at eighteen months and teaching himself Greek and Latin at three, the precocious youngster was dead at four. When he recalls the article a few years later, the protagonist is terrified because he sees in the child's life a familiar pattern:

         His life, like every other life, could be
         graphed: an ascent that rises to a peak,
         pauses at a particular node, and then descends.
         Only the gradient changes in any particular case;
         this child's was steeper than most, his descent
         swifter. We all ripen. We are all bound by the same
         ineluctable law, the same mathematical certainly.

With the exception of the wonderful first story, "The Watcher," and perhaps the last story, "Sam, Soren, and Ed," these small masterpieces trace with the sensitivity of a seismograph the latter half of the familiar pattern: man descending.

Not that the stories are depressing. If the protagonists are losers, they are (to borrow Cohen's phrase) "beautiful losers." Beautiful because of their insight, their tenacity, their philosophical vigour.

It will not take you long to get hooked. In "The Watcher," eleven-year-old Charlie has been banished to Grandma Bradley's farm. The summer promises to be dull. Charlie feels like a captive, rather like "Stanley the rooster. . .who spent his days tethered to a stake by a piece of bailer twine looped around his leg." Eventually boredom gives way to frustration, and Charlie picks a fight:

         The heat, the sultry menace of the gathering
         storm, made me feel prickly, edgy. I flicked my
         middle finger smartly against his tiny chicken
         skull, hard enough to rattle his pea-sized brain.
         "You like that, buster?" I asked, and snapped him
         another one for good measure. He struck back again,
         his comb red, crested, and rubbery with fury.

         I was angry myself. I turned him upside down and
         left him dangling, his wings drumming against the
         leg of my jeans. Then I righted him abruptly; he
         looked dishevelled, seedy, and dazed.

         "Okay, Stanley," I said, feeling the intoxication
         of power. "I'm boss here, and you behave." There was
         a gleeful edge to my voice, which surprised me a little.
         I realized I was hoping this confrontation would escalate.
         Wishing that he would provoke me into something.

This pugilistic misadventure between two frustrated "watchers" not only marks the climax of the story's sub-plot, but also anticipates the solution to the story's larger problem—how Grandma Bradley can get rid of a pair of unwanted beatniks who are eating her out of house and home.

"The Watcher" is a powerful story, and once you've read it and the other eleven stories in this wonderful collection, you will want more. With Man Descending, thirty-year-old Guy Vanderhaeghe has launched what will surely be an exciting career as a major Canadian writer.

Boh Kinczyk, Central Elgin C. I., St. Thomas, ON.
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