Friday, April 04, 2008

Mountain Summers

Reflections on a Mountain Summer / Joanna M. Glass
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c1974.
307 p.

This is a novel written by a Saskatoon-born author, who lived in California for many years, is known primarily as a playwright, and is soon to move to the theatre town I currently live in. That explains why my library has suddenly purchased most of her work, and of her two novels, this looked most interesting to me. The structure appealed to me: Jay Rutherford, now in his mid-fifties, is writing a book. It's the story of the defining summer of his life, 1932, when he was fourteen. While Jay's family usually inhabits a wealthy enclave of Michigan, they've built a chateau for themselves in Buena Vista, in the Canadian Rockies. He and his parents spend one summer there.

At the time Jay begins his reminiscences, he still lives in upper crust Michigan, with his wife Pat and university-age daughter Deb, who is staking out her independence by moving to an apartment in downtown Detroit. I most enjoyed the moments in the book when Jay was talking about his writing and how it fit in (or not) to his daily life with Pat. The drama of the long-ago summer wasn't actually all that interesting to me, despite its being Jay's obsession. The basic story: Jay's parents married in what could be termed a society-arranged marriage -- his mother had the money and his father the charisma. When they go to Buena Vista where there is no glittering society Jay sees that his mother Laura relaxes, and her slightly dishevelled appearance and distracted manner actually seem quite lovely. His father does not fit in in the least. Here, quite abruptly, Laura falls for a local man, a drifter who is currently head of a road gang, Winger Burns. Winger has 2 previous wives, and a son back in British Columbia and is clearly not someone interested in commitment, but Laura has fallen hard for the first time in her life. She sends her husband packing back to Michigan and he goes, after spending approximately a week in the fancy home they'd spent a year having built. The whole summer long Laura and Winger have a torrid affair, with Jay watching it all -- sometimes watching far more action than any normal 12-yr old boy would want to see of his mother, or any normal mother would display in front of her 12-yr old son, for that matter. Winger predictably leaves them in the lurch at the end of the summer, and Laura has a drunken binge and goes into a major depression. Finally they return to Michigan, where Laura is admitted to an asylum. OK, enough, the love affair was a big thing for her, we get it already. When she is released she goes home and life goes on in its detached way.

When Jay breaks from this sentimental nostalgia and returns to the present the book picks up. His wife Pat disapproves of his writing, wondering why he'd "want to air his dirty laundry in public". Pat also disapproves of his attachment to his mother, who lives nearby (though in this case I can't say I blame her). I enjoyed how the book was written. In one scene when Jay and Laura and their down-to-earth Buena Vista friends are having a picnic on the beach, the adult conversation breaks into dramatic dialogue. It only lasts about a page, but is very effective; you can see Glass' playwriting talents at that point. Another structural element I liked was a section in the present, in which two distinct scenes are titled Saturday Night with Pat and Jay and Sunday Morning with Pat and Jay. The main event of this section happens off-stage, if you will, we only read the lead-up and fall-out. It was an entertaining, successful construct.

Overall, Glass has a good narrative voice. Jay as an adult is wry and self-deprecating and his look back at his cherished summer is deeply felt. But I'm not sure I really believed Jay as a young boy. He didn't feel quite young enough or boyish enough. Despite his description of road crews, machismo, debauchery, the sexual fixations of adolescent boys, or of the relationships between fathers and sons, the voice still felt somewhat 'female' in a nebulous way I can't quite explain. I liked the book as a whole, although it did come across as very 70's in its focus.

Still, I'm glad I picked it up. Even if it is about a family of rich Americans, that summer in Alberta colours the lives of every character afterwards, both Jay's family and the Albertans they come in contact with. The descriptions of the natural beauty of Buena Vista and the very specific society which existed there in 1932 make Alberta into a character in itself. I wouldn't say I went into immediate raptures over this one, but it appealed enough to keep me reading it for a few days straight, and even a couple of weeks after finishing it, I'm still thinking about it.

1 comment:

  1. It's odd that of the Canadian books that make reference to Americans, most of them have been set in the West, in my experience anyway. Why is that?


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