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Gently Down the Stream

by Ray Robertson

The experience of reading Ray Robertson’s fourth novel is analogous to the careless slide through life evoked by the title, recalling the jobless summer days of childhood, when books were read without a thought for the time they consumed and for the sheer pleasure of hearing other people’s stories.

Gently Down the Stream is a smooth, almost placid read. Robertson’s prose is metronome steady, the tone of his narrator Hank Roberts unwavering in its wry matter-of-factness. There are no glitches here, but few sudden crinkles of surprise either. Hank is a failed philosopher; his wife, Mary, is a struggling but successful painter; his best friend Phil is a recently renowned poet, whose girlfriend Rebecca is an overrated novelist. Other than the passing stabs of resentment inevitable in relationships between people of such precarious vocation, the novel’s first half is devoid of conflict. Instead, we get Hank’s quotidian musings on everything from dog ownership to SUVs to the greatest live albums of all time, leaving us with the nagging impression that our hero is avoiding something.

Hank embodies a paradox all too common in today’s urban male narrator: mistaking opinions for emotions, Hank tells us a lot while revealing very little. Whole pages tell us nothing more significant than his distaste for Christmas or his deep, abiding love of Jim Morrison. The few teasing flashes of honest self-disclosure – as when, admiring the good humour of a floundering karaoke victim, Hank says, “I respect people who don’t need to get drunk or high or lie to themselves to have a good time. Don’t understand it, but I do respect it” – make us hope that he will soon turn to face us flush, but he never does.

Nor does he face himself. Although the increasing strain Hank’s myopia places on his marriage is often conveyed in scenes of sharp, needling dialogue, the couple’s emotional dynamics are never fully fleshed out. When real trouble arises, Hank remains blissfully unreflective, and Mary’s character remains flat. So although the book is fun, Gently Down the Stream ultimately frustrates, with Robertson content to float along on wit when what his novel needs is one deep plunge.