by Jack Hodgins
Published by McClelland & Stewart
392 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Reading one of Jack Hodgins' novels is like sinking into a warm bath: not because his stories are necessarily comforting (for no one can trace a cold emotional undercurrent like Hodgins), but because we know we are in such good hands. In his most recent novel, Distance, the veteran Canadian author's psychic epicenter of Vancouver Island forms a sort of jumping-off place, in more ways than one, for a story of father-son distance, geographic distance, and distance from the natural world. In Distance Hodgins illustrates the universal human yearning for closeness and connection.
Sonny Aalto, a fiftyish entrepreneur living alone in Ottawa, is superficially successful but terminally restless, alienated from his grown son and daughter, and chronically lonely and discontented: "a man who couldn't stand still." His world travels take him to various holy shrines where he seeks a spiritual sustenance that always eludes him. A landscaper who built up his business from a few shrubs into a thriving concern, he loves the natural world, but made his fortune imposing order on it, as if to bring it under his control.
Relationships are not so easy to tame. Sonny receives news that his aging father back in Portuguese Creek, Vancouver Island, has taken a turn for the worse and may not have much time left. This floods him with memories of a traumatic boyhood with an alcoholic layabout of a father whose wife walked out on the family when Sonny was only two. Then while skating on the Rideau Canal he literally bumps into a stranger, a big, gregarious Australian man named Jerrod who, incredibly, claims to be Sonny's brother.
While Sonny listens in disbelief, Jerrod (whose name is really Gerald -- it's the accent) talks about their mother's sheep station in Australia and hands him an invitation to a pig-shoot which will serve as something of a family reunion. Sonny barely has time to absorb this stunning news as he flies back to the Island to spend time with his dying father, the "lazy wife-abandoned drunk" who raised him.
"He was being dragged backwards across the surface of his own life even as this plane was taking him forward into a future he wasn't prepared to face," Hodgins writes, setting the stage for a strange adventure that will take father and son down under in more ways than one.
Hodgins is completely comfortable in his little universe of Portuguese Creek, bringing back many of the earthy Island folk he created in past novels such as The Macken Charm. Timo Aalto may have been a drunk, a layabout and a disaster as a father, but his neighbors guard his well-being jealously, and openly rebuke Sonny for what they perceive as his unforgivable neglect. His father shows no remorse for his past behavior, but rather asks Sonny for a shocking favor: to take him to a precipice on Cape Scott, the bleak northernmost tip of the island, so he can throw himself off.
Sonny realizes that, one way or another, his father is going to die, and wrestles with the stark fact:
To think that someone you knew this intimately might no longer exist was some kind of metaphysical contradiction in terms. He could not imagine his father not being.
Anything seems preferable to assisted suicide, even an improbable and impractical plan to take his father to Australia to confront the wife who abandoned him. The two of them end up on a highly unlikely yet totally believable road trip to find Kalevan Station, the strange outback empire where Sonny's mother, Viira Hawkins, holds sway over her rambunctious clan.
These are only the bare bones of an incredibly complex story that nevertheless reads so smoothly and gracefully that all signs of crafting disappear. Not only does Hodgins skillfully contrast the cultures of two islands on opposite sides of the world, he weaves in skeins of story about Sonny's photographer daughter, Charlotte, ("In this light, her hair shone with hints of pink, like the tips of nearly ripe hay"), his on-again-off-again romance with a wild plant expert named Holly, bits of arcane Finnish folklore, radical environmentalism clashing with the dignity of the working logger and even the threatened separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada.
In lesser hands this might feel like too much, but Hodgins braids it all together with the assurance of a master. Distance is packed with characters like the huge, formidable Tom Reimer ("His tarnished-penny eyes were deep in folds of dark sad flesh"), and Sonny's Aussie "rellies," their outback accents twanging in our ears: "yayce" for "yes," "t'dye's pye-pah" for "today's paper." Sonny's bewilderment at rediscovering his bumptious lost clan is palpable and, all through the novel, Hodgins craftily builds tension towards the all-important confrontation with the mother who abandoned him. But in the meantime he throws in a natural disaster, the flooding of Mistake Creek, an episode that literally sweeps away Sonny's father like some Biblical sinner being purged by the wrath of God.
Some of the best features of Distance are things (and people) seen out of the corner of the eye. A particularly memorable minor character is Lachlan Hall, a gangly young Aussie who drives father and son across the perilous outback to Kalevan Station in a stolen Land Cruiser painted with zebra stripes. This shambling, drawling, pot-puffing kid, a sometime male prostitute on the streets of Sydney, is completely misunderstood and alienated from his small-town family. A heartbreaking scene with his mother ends with Lachlan slamming the door: "I'll stay in bloody Sydney so you can forget I was ever born." This kid is so heart-tugging you want to adopt him, as Sonny finds himself wanting to do at the end of their journey.
This novel is about so many things, including the way the wholeness of the land can be ravaged by natural force and human greed: "You had only to remember that a landscape could be stolen, drowned, or buried. It could be borrowed, blasted, burnt, and covered over. Worse, it could simply disappear." But it is also about heartscapes, the aching spaces between people, and the dearness that pulls them irresistibly back together. As Sonny concludes when it is all over, "Maybe there wasn't anything more important you could do -- a thought so startling that he felt his face heat up to think it -- than make yourself available to the love of others." When the man who couldn't stand still finally stops running, what catches up with him isn't the horror of the past, but a love that transcends all sense of time. | February 2004
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.