The latest and, unfortunately, final novel by Winnipeg author Wayne Tefs (who died of cancer in September), is a mesmerizing tale of self-discovery about Harlan, an unusual teenaged boy living on a hardscrabble Saskatchewan farm during the Depression. The boy is regularly beaten and terrorized by his father, so he runs away, joins a circus, and begins to lead a charmed life.
Harlan finds great success as a circus barker; his magnetic personality and golden voice draw crowds to the acts he promotes. Women, in particular, find him irresistible, which proves a good thing because, like most teenaged boys, he is perpetually aroused. Throughout Tefs’ fable-like tale, Harlan beds numerous beauties, ranging from high-school girls to middle-aged matrons. The sex scenes are wonderfully erotic and heady, with nary a tired euphemism or four-letter word.
But there is much more to Harlan than sex and adventure. He can read the fine print on a piece of paper hundreds of metres away; he miraculously heals his wounded brother; every time he touches another person, he is immersed in strong scents of ripe fruit or fresh herbs. Harlan keeps these mysteries to himself, and after serving in the army during the Second World War, becomes a successful real estate salesman in Winnipeg. One witch-like customer helps him understand his seemingly supernatural powers and how to exploit them for his own benefit and that of others, until (inevitably), tragedy strikes.
Tefs writes in short, muscular sentences that carry the reader speedily through the plot. Each character is exquisitely drawn, every scene perfectly set. Barker is a joy to read, until the conclusion. An ending that was surely intended to be profound and insightful is instead anticlimactic and disappointing. Sadly, like Tefs’ own story, Harlan’s ends too soon.