In a 2011 article in The Globe and Mail, writer Patricia Dawn Robertson calls Guy Vanderhaeghe “Canada’s greatest chronicler of the West,” a reference to the Saskatchewan author’s historical epics The Englishman’s Boy (which won a Governor General’s Literary Award), The Last Crossing (which won the 2004 iteration of CBC’s Canada Reads competition), and A Good Man. With Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, Vanderhaeghe leaves the cowboys behind to examine other archetypes of masculinity.
Of the nine stories in Daddy Lenin, the strongest are the ones featuring protagonists who are a bit older, wiser, and rough around the edges. In “Tick Tock,” Charley Brewster is an English professor in his sixties who has settled into a mundane existence. Even his relationship with Eva, a driven, successful younger woman, has come to a turgid standstill, though neither has bothered to end it yet. When a young couple moves into the apartment next door and Brewster suspects the husband is beating the wife, he begins to experience excruciating pains in his hands, the ghosts of injuries sustained in his thuggish youth.
There is something deliciously satisfying about watching Brewster reclaim his “true” nature. When he discovers relief from the pain only comes via violence, we feel the thrill of recognition along with him. We know Brewster’s confrontation with the abusive husband is not going to end well (the other man is much younger and so muscle-bound as to be neckless), yet we revel in Brewster’s joy at letting go of the restraints of respectability with which he has shackled himself and embracing his baser instincts.
Vanderhaeghe showcases his talent for first-person voice in two stories, both of which are standouts. The wry, gruff tone of Bert Molson in “Counsellor Sally Brings Me to the Tunnel” careens through a story that is equally tragic and hilarious. Molson, a high-school history teacher nearing retirement, is forced to go to counselling after a parent catches him in a lie about spending time as an AP photographer during the Vietnam War. Counsellor Sally tries to get Molson to see the connections between his own behaviour and that of his bullying, caustic Uncle Ted, with whom he had a fraught relationship during his childhood.
Molson is no dummy, but his sometimes self-preserving obliviousness to the truth is expressed in a dismissive, crass tone: “Okay, I admit that at that time I thought Uncle Ted was pretty much the kitty’s little pink ass. In my starry eyes he was a big success, unlike all my other loser aunts and uncles.” His recollections of past interactions with Ted reveal a commonality in voice and attitude, allowing the reader in on the secret that the two are indeed cut from the same rough cloth.
“Koenig & Company” is a perfect trifecta, combing first-person voice, an older narrator looking back at his youth, and a strong younger version of the character. At 15, Billy Dowd’s mother suffers a nervous breakdown – her third in four years – and the boy is left to fend largely for himself. His father, who is away from home for weeks at a time working on bridge construction, arranges for Billy to share dinner with the Koenig family, the small town’s social pariahs. Billy resists the arrangement as long as he can, but faced with limited funds, he skulks to the Koenig residence, which is as unpleasant as expected. When Sabrina Koenig, older than Billy by two years and bearing a leg twisted by polio, arrives at his door the next day with a bag of groceries and a proposal to prepare his meals (she’s stolen the money Billy’s father gave her mother for that purpose), the two begin an uneasy friendship that ends, as it must, with an embarrassing misunderstanding.
There is no denying that Sabrina plays second fiddle to Billy in the story; indeed, she is one of a string of female characters who are relegated to supporting roles. However, despite her disability and unsavory family, she is afforded more respect and legitimacy than the majority of women featured. Most are battered, lusted after, dismissed, or outright ignored. Molson calls Counsellor Sally a “fucking quisling”; Brewster, perhaps threated by Eva’s success, opts to belittle the woman: “Eva no longer needed to ponder or make notes on the sort of masculinity Charley Brewster enacted. It hadn’t taken her long to conclude that he was the poster boy for the bad hegemonic variety, since he was white, heterosexual, and a member of a privileged profession.”
These are stories about boys becoming men, about screwing up and starting over, about looking back and moving forward, and – above all – about what it means to be a man. There are no sensitive, metrosexual, kowtowing guys in these stories, though they all have crosses to bear and, often, painful histories. These are complex characters who embody a particular literary strain of working-class, straight-talking, hard-drinking male, even when only the last qualifier applies. On second thought, maybe Vanderhaeghe hasn’t abandoned his cowboys after all.