The strengths of Cloud relate directly to our conviction in Harry Steen, its elderly narrator. Considering Steen’s generally acquiescent and inward personality, his far-flung and adventure-stuffed story (which recalls any number of old-time “guy lit” authors, from Bret Harte and Jack London to O. Henry and Ian Fleming) requires a masterful storyteller to make them believable. And yet, as committed as author Eric McCormack’s narration can be, his piling up of hair-raising incidents, near escapes, and bountiful incursions of madness (not to mention coincidence after fateful coincidence) steadily builds disbelief.
While escaping a downpour in La Verdad, Mexico, pump-and-ventilator manufacturer Steen stumbles upon The Obsidian Cloud, an odd Victorian publication with a mysterious provenance. The mildewing book is an account of a singular meteorological occurrence in a remote Scottish mining town named Duncairn, where Steen had briefly resided after the Second World War. Astonished by the coincidence, he returns home to Camberloo (the imaginary Ontario setting of McCormack’s 1997 novel, First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women) and contacts a Scottish archivist to help him uncover the missing pieces of the unusual book’s origins.
The very sight of the word Duncairn triggers Steen’s extensive memories. He offers lively, though increasingly improbable, autobiographical snippets (centred around his involvement in what Steen calls “weird things … that never seemed quite resolved by common sense”), beginning with poverty in a murderous Glasgow slum. He later winds through a series of tall tales and locales, ranging from pestilent South American mines and the lush exoticism of Oceanic sexual rituals to violence, sex, disease, and death in West Africa and Federal Institute 77, a top-secret neurological experimentation facility in the U.S.
In handling Steen’s moving account of his poor but loving parents, his tragic orphaning, and an ill-starred love affair in Duncairn, McCormack excels. The dangerous exploits and fanciful romantic dalliances, however – especially the sexual liaisons on two continents and the out-of-left-field tangent at the black ops–style medical compound – register as arbitrary excitement for the sake of excitement.