Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review: The Architects are Here, by Michael Winter

I got to see Michael Winter read from The Architects are Here a few months ago at an event at the University of Toronto and picked up the novel as a result. It was a fun evening, mostly because of Winter’s show-stealing performance at the microphone: In typical Atlantic Canadian fashion, his humour, levity and down-home charm was a counterpoint to the more somber and austere readings from Ontarians. Winter writes the kinds of books I love to read, and struggle to write myself: novels that are infused with both pathos and comedy, rich in character and with a tone that is mostly ironic but also knows when to settle into itself and be deadly serious.

The Architects are Here is the second novel that I’ve read in Winter’s series of books featuring protagonist Gabriel English: the other is called This All Happened. While that first book more internal and understated, The Architects Are Here is loud and over the top. Here we find Gabriel dividing his time between Corner Brook and Toronto and getting embroiled in the various entanglements of his sometimes-friend, David Twombly. As a character, David draws both our sympathy and our ire: on the one hand, he watched his own brother drown in a boating accident when they were young and is left deeply traumatized by the event; on the other hand, he’s a wheeler and dealer and philanderer who finds himself enmeshed in an endless vendetta with Corner Brook’s infamous family of miscreants, the Hurleys. At the centre of David’s relationship with Gabriel is the alluring Nell. She spends a great deal of the novel as Gabriel’s girlfriend but has been sleeping with David on the side for years. To complicate matters, Gabriel accompanies David on a long road trip back to Newfoundland shortly after learning about the infidelity.

The Architects are Here has no shortage of action and forward momentum. The story is populated by guns and a Taser, a stabbing or two, a violent accident at sea, and a breathtaking description of what it’s like to hit a moose with your car. Winter’s great strength is the way he can successfully flesh out a simple scene by layering in weird and seemingly unconnected detail. For example, here’s an episode shortly before he and David set out on their road trip:

I checked the rate for local calls and it was a dollar twenty-five, so I went down to the lobby and used the payphone. There was a woman there with a boy watching a cop show on TV. The boy looked like he’d never seen TV before. He was talking about it and she said to him, Use your indoor voice.

David, I said, I’m all for getting out of here today.

My friend let us drive our troubles away.

I hung up and the boy had turned from the TV to ask his mother a question.

Mother: Throw them in jail is an expression, honey. They don’t really throw them in jail.

Are the mother and the boy integral to what’s going on in the scene? Absolutely not. But Winter is aware that Gabriel coming down from his hotel room (staying there because his apartment blew up; it’s a long story!) to call David lacks a certain gravity, and so he plugs in this wonderfully random, realistic detail in order to give the scene some dimension. Winter does this over and over again, and the cumulative effect gives The Architects Are Here its own rich atmosphere, a limber life of its own. These are not random dobs of minimalism; this is actually an incredibly expansive style of writing.

Alas, The Architects Are Here ends up with too much momentum for its own good and completely falls apart in the last act. David’s confrontation with the Hurleys after he and Gabriel arrive back in Corner Brook borders on the absurd. (One of the Hurleys has sent David’s dad into a coma after T-boning his car with a van with a moose bar on it.) The action gets away from Winter and fumbles into the realm of the unbelievable. It’s a shame. The book started out with such charm but then gave in to the baser impulses of the narration.

Despite this book’s disappointing ending, I’ll be reading other Michael Winter novels as they continue to land on my radar. He has a knack for storytelling and a style all his own. It’s easy to overlook flaws when someone writes with as much zest as he does.

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