‘Waiting for Joe’ by Sandra Birdsell

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Maurice Mierau

In the early 1980s, before Sandra Birdsell got an agent, wrote a national bestseller, or was up for prestigious awards, she wrote short stories. Short stories, in our culture, are written by the pure of heart—cash registers ring much louder for novels, and better still for the sellers of mutual funds.

So Birdsell’s first two books, Night Travellers (1982) and Ladies of the House (1984), were short story collections. They were also landmark publications. William French in the Globe compared them to Alice Munro and cited “the pleasure of discovering major talent.” Birdsell’s first book was quickly reprinted in a mass-market paperback, something unimaginable today without an awards jury conferring its quasi-papal blessing.

Night Travellers begins with “The Flood,” and immediately introduces the confluence of cultures around the Red River that has continued to occupy Birdsell. She comes back to the married couple here (Metis and Mennonite) in her 2005 novel, Children of the Day, which I think is her most fully-realized, although many readers prefer The Russländer, perhaps because of its detailed evocation of Mennonite life in the Old Country.

Ladies of the House contains one story, “The Bird Dance,” whose narrator rather eerily prefigures the voice of Miriam Toews’s teenage protagonist Nomi in A Complicated Kindness (2004).

But voice and style are not what set Birdsell’s work apart. Rather her distinctive quality is an uncanny ability to physically evoke experience for the reader, and stemming from that, an ability to make the reader empathize with her lead characters.

Since roughly the time Birdsell began writing novels, university English departments in Canada have been telling students that creating empathy for fictional characters is a form of retrograde humanism. Fiction, in the era of literary theory, ought to result in something like the French New Novel—which was already thirty years old by the time it arrived here, a clever ad campaign for a stale-dated product. Of course immersion in the sensual experience of characters, and empathy with them, has aged rather well, and an alert reader might even find traces of it in Robbe-Grillet.

Joe Beaudry, the protagonist of Birdsell’s latest novel, awakens thinking he is at home in Winnipeg, hearing a familiar ceiling fan. But he’s in a Walmart parking lot in Regina with his wife Laurie, sleeping in an RV he stole from his own bankrupt and ironically-named business, The Happy Traveler. The novel is a road story ripped from the headlines, following the impact of the recession on Joe and Laurie, and the further impacts on characters such as Joe’s father Alfred.

`Once again Birdsell demonstrates her ability to put the reader inside the emotional space of characters. Here Joe remembers his teenage lust for an Aboriginal girl who’s also the single mother of a baby, Jordan:

He could see the edge of her white bra at the V neck-line of her dress, how it pressed into the curve of her breast and he was about to reach out, his fingers stiff and shaking, and undo a button. Then his eyes came to rest on Jordan lying on the other side of her, staring at him as though trying to memorize his face.

Birdsell’s restrained diction, regular sentence structures, and straightforward narratives disguise a deep and much-practised craft.

This tautly written and compact novel depends to some degree on the realism of its dialogue. While there are passages that offer amusing and plausible contrasts between what’s said and what is felt, at other times the dialogue is a little too bald. For example, when Joe calls his old boyhood friend Steve on the phone and talks about Laurie: “‘I think we’ve split. It’s complicated, but it’s been coming for some time.’” As he speaks, he knows it’s true.”

On the other hand, the passage I found most moving begins with rather awkward exposition, but then develops into a powerful scene between father and son, where the two deeply-repressed men declare their love for each other:

The word, Dad, has always released a whirlwind of conflicting emotions….

“I love you, Joe.”

“So do I,” Joe says. “I meant, you, that is. I meant to say that I love you too.”

“Well, good. At least we got that straight,” Alfred says.

At this moment of great literal distance between Joe and Alfred—they’re on a long distance call—they seem to overcome their psychological distance.

One of the things that held father and son apart in Joe’s youth was Alfred’s disdain for evangelical Christianity. Waiting for Joe deals, sometimes rather harshly and didactically, with Joe’s discovery of Jesus. Again the strongest passages are those that connect physical and psychological experience. Here Joe has seen one of his dad’s porn magazines, and begins fantasizing about Pastor Ken’s wife Maryanne:

Joe had seen the slash of a woman’s sex, the puff of hair around it, and whenever he awakened from an erotic dream painfully stiff, he masturbated while imagining that Maryanne’s nipples and hair were silver, and her slit was a pearly pinkness like the inside of a conch shell.

The novel loses a little of its immediacy by concentrating some much of its action in flashbacks that move the reader away from the fictional present. Perhaps sensing this, Birdsell introduces more secondary characters, an African brother and sister, who provide some narrative zing in the novel’s last third.

Birdsell’s snapshot of consumer culture is arresting. I won’t soon forget the image of Joe smashing his and Laurie’s small appliances with a hammer in the driveway, rather than selling them for a fraction of their value at a garage sale. Laurie’s descent into the bowels of a Value Village, while overtly realistic, carries a pleasing whiff of Dante’s Inferno too.

One of the things that readers look for in fiction writers with long careers—and Birdsell has by now written seven novels and three books of short stories—is a sense of the books as a source not just of well-constructed narratives and plausible characters, but of wisdom. One of the last paragraphs in Waiting for Joe delivers exactly that:

He cuts away from the highway and goes down the slope of the ditch, the dried reeds slashing at his bare legs. He ducks between the strands of the fence and heads out across the field when, within moments, he’s surprised by a flock of Franklin gulls rising up all at once, the air filled with their complaints. And it comes to him then, that the dream of his mother had nothing to do with forgiveness. Rather, with her cold, hard and long kiss, she was telling him that he should know that he is alive, while she is not.

Random House Canada | 288 pages | cloth | $29.95 |  ISBN 978-0307359162


Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review and associate fiction editor for Enfield & Wizenty. His last book, Fear Not, won the ReLit award for poetry in 2009.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty