The father of Clyde, the political analyst and title character of David Helwig’s new novel, died in Dieppe and his mother raised him in grim, post-war Ontario, employing a no-frills parenting style that would be considered Dickensian by today’s overindulgent standards. His childhood friend turns out to be, in the era’s parlance, a fruit or, to update the lingo by several decades, a closeted homosexual. His wife has a thing for carpentry and men’s shirts. If all of this tells you more about his friends and family than the man himself, it’s because – and herein lies both the strength and weakness of Clyde – Helwig structures the novel around his main character’s recollections of the people who shaped his life from the 1940s to the 1990s.
Clyde himself is representative of an enigmatic generation of Canadians who, like the author, came of age after the Second World War. “A person could never get in touch with you,” Clyde’s former boss tells him. A moral compass in need of serious tuning goes a long way toward explaining this ambiguousness. Clyde is not above skirting the law or sleeping with a friend’s wife. Like Canada itself, he’s a man in search of an identity, a place in the world. This is a memory novel and it largely recalls a country that once was and, for better rather than worse, will never be again. Some things never change, however: pages upon pages describing the game of golf, that fetish of Anglo Canadians, ensure historical continuity.
But Helwig confuses detail and narrative abundance with insight and meaning. At the end of this ultimately entertaining and fast read, you may well wonder what the author is trying to convey. Clyde is a character study, a rake’s progress of sorts, and on those terms, it succeeds. However, that success comes at a hefty expense, including underdeveloped supporting characters – a vindictive journalist is one campy catchphrase away from cartoonish villainy – and a hackneyed plot device by which the death of a childhood friend triggers Clyde’s memories. There’s wit and warmth here, but tired narrative ploys often get in the way.