REAL PLACES AND IMAGINARY MEN
Ottawa, Oberon Press, c1984.
Ottawa, Oberon Press, c1984.
Volume 12 Number 6
You might not have heard of Barry Dempster (he was nominated for a Governor General's Award in 1983 for his book of poetry, Fables for Isolated Men), but that will change soon. His first collection of stories, Real Places and Imaginary Men is marvellous.
The eight stories are set in real places: northern Ontario's cottage country, Toronto, Highway 45, Calcutta, old Israel, turn-of-the-century England. In these real places, "imaginary" men experience special moments of heightened consciousness where the real and the magical intersect.
The first story, "Barry's Bay," is as good as any story written in the last ten years. One day, thirteen-year-old Toby builds an igloo which collapses, spilling snow all over the recently-shoveled driveway:
My father was in the bathroom and heard me scream, a scream of delight rather than fear. He opened the window, leaning out to his shoulders. I was laughing, trying to tell him how funny it was, how my igloo dreams had toppled like a tree. He didn't smile. He looked angry. An hour earlier he'd shoveled the snow. "Bastard," he said, as quickly and calmly as the snow had collapsed. He slammed the window down.
Assuming responsibility for his father's nervous breakdown, Toby is crushed under an avalanche of unhappiness:
Fault swooped down like a bird, no matter whether feathers were paper or stone. I knew my father. I knew he was unhappy. I knew the bastard was me, my mother, Mrs. Meadows, God, the snow. . .all the broken cars in the great universe of Toronto. I knew the bastard was life.
After spending the winter and spring in hospital, Toby's father takes the family to Barry's Bay. There father and son grow close again. In the afternoons they swim and fish and hike; in the evenings they sit outside and watch the stars:
The crickets played harps on blades of grass, the loons screamed like fat sopranos, my father talked and talked as if trying to fill the empty skies with words.
On the last day of vacation, Toby's father asks, "Do you love me?," and Toby's heart fills with the impossible desire to be held. After helping his mother pack, he walks down to the bay to find his father. He's gone. Toby dreams that his father has walked into the endless eternal bay, following his dreams. The dream, though, is less devastating than reality, for in the end, Toby's dreams die:
Like the seats abandoned in a theatre, my dreams sat on the beach, motionless, as if they had never been alive themselves, had simply borrowed an audience's breath, and were now as good as dead.
Dempster's gifts shine brightly in "The Beginning of Klaus Berber," which deals with the slow death of personality; in "The Burial," where terrifying dreams attend a burial in Calcutta's Hooghly River; and in "Going on Alone," where, after an Arab raid, a pair of lovers are found entwined in the sand, headless.
Dempster's stories are playful, violent, tender, thoughtful. He spins metaphors easily, almost casually, and they are always right. He gives us the words for what we have often felt or feared or suspected, but never said. His insights into the lives of imaginary men are extraordinarily real.
Barry Dempster is a Very talented writer. Don't miss Real Places and Imaginary Men.
Boh Kinczyk, Central Elgin C. I., St. Thomas, ON.
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