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Dr. Kalbfleisch & the Chicken Restaurant

by Cordelia Strube

It’s one of those dog days of summer. Sitting and sweating on the back porch, through the thirsty leaves of the overgrown cherry tree we watch the man from across the back alley – the one who’s a bit slow, the one who in late middle-age still lives with his parents in the house where he was born. He wears dark pants and a dark shirt and suspenders. He bends his knees, yanks at the cord with purpose, and then proceeds to mow every inch of the tiny backyard, or as much of it that’s available around the beige two-tone late-’70s model Pontiac Grand Le Mans that’s parked right on the grass. “He just cut it all yesterday,” I tell John.

“It’s sort of Steinbeckian,” he says. It’s so hot we speak as if underwater.

“No,” I say, “it’s Strubian.”

The man reminds me of Winnie, the talkative, intuitively moral, slightly retarded neighbour whose innocence is betrayed by Milton and his screwed-up sister Connie in Toronto writer Cordelia Strube’s second novel, Milton’s Elements. In fact, my whole East Vancouver neighbourhood sometimes feels like Strube country. At the Safeway, snaking lines of customers who all look as if they’re on day parole from somewhere buy overpriced processed foods from check-out clerks made anemic by bad lighting. Around the corner, a man moving out of the upstairs suite of an old house dodges his landlady who keeps screaming at him, “You’re not normal, you’re not normal!” The police and ambulance arrive after her son sprays pepper spray in his face. A few blocks away lives a man whose feet are deformed, twisted around so that he appears to be walking backwards in his big rubber boots. Moving forward seems to be an enormous struggle.

These people are like the many bit players in Strube’s four novels, which feature anti-heroes who find it hard to see the meaning of it all in a world where everyone seems like a failure and innocent people have atrocities committed against them by strangers, their loved ones, or acts of God; where unlike on TV, death is messy; where people are mean and needy and uncommunicative. Early on in her first book, Alex & Zee – which was nominated for a 1995 Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award – Zee contemplates the Big Dipper in the night sky: “Humans must be a joke to look down upon, running around frantically like ants, trying to build empires, holes in the sand,” he thinks, “What’s the point?”

That very question lies at the fragile, but water-stone-encrusted heart of all of Strube’s tough luck novels. In her latest, Dr. Kalbfleisch & the Chicken Restaurant, Raymond lies on his ex-wife’s couch trying to think about what’s important in life, while out back a neighbour swings naked from a tree singing “You Are My Sunshine”: “What is essential to the planet; animals, plants, trees? Certainly not humans… there can be no doubt humans were a mistake: a waste of space. Maybe, after creating man, God had a nervous breakdown. Which explains why earth has gone to hell.”

Alex & Zee was enthusiastically hailed as “the feel-bad novel of the year,” and Strube continued to apply her wonderfully misanthropic tar-black humour in Milton’s Elements and the G.G.-nominated Teaching Pigs to Sing. Although Dr. Kalbfleisch’s Raymond is nicer and more proactive than her other protagonists, the book isn’t about to have you up and singing “Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And that’s exactly what I like about it.

Raymond, who manages Chez Simon, a chicken restaurant, is an interesting addition to Strube’s expanding gallery of urban sad sacks in a world where the centre is not holding. Raymond’s ex-wife Mara has had six miscarriages, and the grief that grew between them made the marriage impossible, even though Raymond still loves her. The novel opens with Raymond talking to a social worker about connecting with his birth mother, now that his adoptive mother is dying. When Raymond finds out that he was a twin – is a twin, as his brother is alive – he thinks he’ll finally feel less alone. Be careful what you wish for. Dwayne, the twin, turns out to be a kind of sociopathic Überloser who makes poor Raymond look prime ministerial by contrast. If this were a film, we’d be in Mike Leigh territory.

Strube’s prose is unadorned, yet not stark. The dialogue is absolutely dynamite, which may or may not have something to do with the fact that Strube has written a number of radio plays and worked as an actor. As in all her books, she manages to deftly juggle a large cast of secondary characters. There’s Dr. Simon Kalbfleisch himself; there’s the staff, including Barney whose excuses for being late include things like, “My girlfriend had an abortion yesterday, man. Without even telling me.” There’s Gloria, Raymond’s birth mother, a distasteful but feisty woman who has a twisted relationship with the creepy Dwayne.

I find Strube’s books a terrific antidote to the rather predictable CanLit niceties of someone like, say, Erika de Vasconcelos. Her writing seems breathtakingly honest. There are mothers too irritating and mean-spirited to be loved by their children. The terminally ill, whether from AIDS or cancer or whatever, are not noble, but whiny and angry (which seems pretty realistic to me). Redemption, when it comes at all, is a small, hard bone of a thing that comes from something like the wise eyes of a tiny baby in an incubator, a preemie born on a bathroom floor. If there’s any one point to Strube’s body of work (four books in four years) it’s that the children shall save us. Maybe. In Milton’s Elements, Milton’s tiny daughter Ariel is crushed by pulling a TV onto herself. Milton remembers watching her intently colouring and thinking about how he didn’t want her to be like him, “he didn’t think he could stand to see her learn what he had learned, to watch the blue eyes harden and the tiny shoulders hunch against the onslaught of human ignorance.”

Strube ably captures the anxieties of white, lower-middle-class urban-dwellers at the end of the 20th century. Call these existentialist soap operas. In most of the novels the body counts exceed that of Hamlet, if you count dogs and budgies, and if you’re Strube, you certainly would. Then there are the maimed. One of her fixations – or her protagonists’ fixations – is with disability. Sort of like Dali with his crutch thing. The armless, legless, the blind – children and adults – move through the novels almost like background scenery as her anti-heroes wonder how these people can go on. I think of her main characters themselves as sort of thalidomide babies of the heart.

The similarity to Hamlet doesn’t end with the body counts. Each book has its fin-de-siècle Toronto version of the Prince of Denmark’s famous soliloquy. And that is the question. While it’s not incumbent on literature to provide the answers as well, Raymond, more so than any other of Strube’s “losers,” tries hard to lurch towards the light.


Reviewer: Zsuzsi Gartner

Publisher: HarperCollins


Price: $20

Page Count: 319 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-00-648050-0

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-9

Categories: Fiction: Novels