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Doing the Heart Good

by Neil Bissoondath

Relatively early in Doing the Heart Good, an academic colleague of the narrator, making clumsy fun of what he incorrectly takes to be a hangover, expresses his surprise and delight. “Maybe you’re not as much of a tight-ass as I thought,” the professor teases.

But oh, that is just what Alistair Mackenzie is: tight-ass incarnate. He is also cranky, self-absorbed, prejudiced, and stiff-necked about one thing and another, as well as in mourning for his late wife Mary whom he has adored well beyond her death from heart disease.

Mainly, though, Alistair Mackenzie is tight-assed. The passing accusation sticks.

This represents a considerable challenge for the novelist writing in such a man’s voice. Will the 75-year-old Mackenzie, his external events and internal musings, be captivating enough to overcome his musty sourness? And why take on such a challenge?

Well, maybe because it is one.

Doing the Heart Good is a literary departure for Neil Bissoondath, the Trinidad-born Montrealer whose previous novels and short story collections have been far more multi-hued and variously voiced, and whose non-fiction has focused on the perils and shortcomings of Canada’s official multiculturalism policies.

This time he has chosen the perspective of a near-stereotypical old Anglo fart: a man whose energies and passions are so thoroughly sedimented over that it is a major excavation project to glimpse them, never mind bring them to the surface.

At the time of telling it is Christmas in Montreal, and Mackenzie has been six months in the home of his daughter Agnes, her husband Jacques (“Jack”, as Mackenzie persists in calling him), and their six-year-old son François. A retired professor of English literatures – his particular objects of affection are the works of Charles Dickens – Mackenzie is living with his daughter’s family because he lost his own home to fire. With almost all his possessions gone, and with the alertness of the elderly to the fact that he too will one day vanish, and against the horror of being forgotten, his existence nullified, he has begun to write down bits and pieces of his life, episodes he imagines that, in the hands of his daughter, or her son, might outlive him.

So there are the further challenges for Bissoondath: a repressed narrator who is examining events from the past – and in writing – and without much that’s obvious going on in the present.

And there, also, frankly, is the challenge for the reader: to take on faith that this will be a worthwhile experiment, finally, in the suggestion implied by the title – that some sufficient good to, for, or with the heart will be done.

Given all this, much depends not on plot, nor even on character, but on the writing itself. And often Bissoondath’s writing is beautiful and spare indeed: telling briefly of the childhood death of his only brother, Mackenzie says, “It was mere days after his eighth birthday, on a day of heavy snow, the kind of snow that obliterates the world, that Kevin went outside and never returned.”

His sister Ruth-Ann, now in a nursing home with what appears to be Alzheimer’s disease, is remembered as a wild-spirited young woman whose first marriage was to a circus acrobat who greets his wife’s family by cartwheeling through a company picnic. It’s a moment worthy of John Irving, in the days Irving wrote that sort of thing.

Often, however, particularly in recollected dialogue, the writing turns formal, and even fatally stilted. When it comes to human interaction, Mackenzie is simply, well, a tight-ass blessed by the occasional interesting acquaintance. He is also cursed by terminal overreaction to insignificant matters. Befriended by a lively fellow who becomes a famous novelist-journalist, Mackenzie makes such a huge deal of asking the writer to read at his university that their friendship is ruined – with no signal from Bissoondath that Mackenzie’s ineptness with something so minor is to be viewed with irony, or even pity.

He may be an English prof, but that doesn’t make Mackenzie smart, much less wise. Before the fire that destroys his home, he engages in a one-sided anti-French grudge match with his inoffensive Québécois upstairs tenant. Chairing a sexual harassment investigation by a student against one of his colleagues, he uses procedure rather than justice as a guide, with tragic results.

In fact there are several tragedies in the tales Mackenzie recounts, not least in the two young refugee brothers who encounter a war criminal from their homeland living in their Montreal apartment building. But the stories are all secondhand, thirdhand, sparsely told, sad or awful or puzzling events, mainly heard and observed from a distance.

There is some good done to the heart in the end of this novel, a certain softening, a kind of beauty. Each reader will have to decide if the way there, through a tight and awkward man who has heard much and acted little, who has some graceful words but strangely few gifts for applying them, holds up for the journey.


Reviewer: Joan Barfoot

Publisher: Cormorant Books


Price: $34.95

Page Count: 328 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 1-896951-35-X

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 2002-3

Categories: Fiction: Novels