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by James Heneghan

I detest faeries. They dress funny, have difficult names, and are usually cloyingly impish. Not surprisingly, I try to avoid books – usually long, involved Celtic epics – in which faeries might play a part. But in James Heneghan’s new novel, Flood, they pop up in contemporary Vancouver, engaged in their usual charming mischief (aren’t any of these creatures gainfully employed?) until a flood carries away some mortals’ hillside homes.

The faeries save 12-year-old Andy Flynn from drowning, but his mother and stepfather perish. After Andy has recovered in hospital, his crusty Aunt Mona arrives to take him to Halifax to live. (A team of invisible faeries comes along to look over the boy whose life they saved. Apparently, it’s customary.) Andy dislikes Aunt Mona violently, and when she lets slip that his father is alive and in Halifax (not dead as his mother had always told him), Andy decides to run away and find him. Find him he does, but Vincent Flynn turns out to be completely unfit for parenthood.

Andy’s errant father is drawn with great skill by Heneghan. He left when Andy was six, and is now a layabout drinker who makes money selling bootlegged cigarettes and booze. He is by turns despicable and charming, loving and negligent, a liar and an arresting storyteller. Though he usually has the best intentions, he lacks any kind of internal machinery to make good on them. Vincent’s apartment is squalid. There are roaches, rats, no food in the fridge, no heat, no bathroom. It is a thrilling set for a charged father-son reunion. Undeterred, the appealingly resilient Andy is filled with plans for the improvement of both their squalid living arrangements and their relationship. There is something both poignant and humorous in all of Andy’s dogged attempts to help his father be a father:

“I’ve got an idea!’ he said. “You could open a little shop to sell the cigarettes! Then you’d get a license from City Hall. Or if you find a job, then I can help at home, I really can. I can wash dishes and fix things. Simple stuff. We can get a cookbook and I’ll learn how to cook so supper’s ready when you get home from work, and we’ll get a dog to watch things while we’re out. I know how to train dogs. It’ll be great, you’ll see.”

In a brilliant piece of characterization, Heneghan has Vincent always agreeing with his son, awash with genuine enthusiasm for his ideas. “Don’t worry. Leave it to me,” he inevitably says with cheerful vigour. And then does nothing.

Now back to those pesky faeries. Though they open the novel, they all but dissolve from the story. Yet at the end of every chapter, Heneghan keeps coming back to them for a few lines, usually lighthearted dialogue between the wee folk. Although they’re intended for comic relief, they create a jarring juxtaposition with the main naturalistic drama, which is so strong and completely enthralling it needs no supernatural silliness grafted onto it. As well, the faeries do next to nothing in terms of forwarding the plot, apart from one incident halfway into the novel: they supposedly make a fire escape fall, to save Andy’s dad from some pursuing thugs. Forgive me for being curmudgeonly, but I couldn’t help wishing these faeries had been exterminated from the novel.

Heneghan is a fine writer, and, as always, his unadorned prose carries a wallop. In Flood, his greatest achievement is the complex characterization. There are no heroes or villains here, no easy oppositions. He captures Andy’s shell-shock, and later his innate determination and adaptability (so true of children) even in the midst of a tenement apartment. And just when the reader is tempted to write off Vincent Flynn, Heneghan shows us his redeeming traits – kindness and honesty – when he finally tells his son “a boy needs to be looked after properly. And I’m not up to it. It’s beyond me. D’you hear what I’m telling you? I’m not the one to bring you up.”

It is Vincent who calls up Aunt Mona and asks her to take Andy into her home. Here Heneghan deftly chronicles Andy’s complicated emotional state as he vents his feelings of abandonment toward his Aunt Mona, lying to himself and insisting that his father will take him back when he finds work. After living in his father’s hovel for so long, it’s the little things Andy notices first at Aunt Mona’s: the extra blanket, the hot-water bottle, the tidiness of his room. And Heneghan believably moves Andy from animosity to grudging acceptance, and then gratitude and love toward his new family. (Aunt Mona is so taut and acerbic at the outset, she had to turn out to have a grand heart.)

What is most impressive about Heneghan’s handling of the father-son relationship is that he resists what surely must have been a powerful temptation to reform Vincent Flynn. A lesser writer would have succumbed to superficial sentimentality, showing the father finally getting his act together for the sake of his son, getting a job, finding a better place to raise his boy. To Heneghan’s immense credit, Vincent Flynn does no such thing. And Andy comes to the realization – possibly a bit too maturely for a 12-year-old – that his father will never change, and no one, including his own son, can make him. By book’s end Andy has started school again, made some friends, and begun a new life while managing to maintain good relations with his father. And despite the faeries, this is a splendid book.