“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon.” Dr. Seuss’s quip might well serve as an epigraph for James Grainger’s superb debut novel. This taut, timely tale keenly dissects the struggles and failings of contemporary men floundering for a place in a world where, as one character bluntly puts it, “the West has shit the bed.”
Harmless possesses the compression and unity of a powerful stage play. The story unfolds over a single day and night, as a group of old friends – “the first downwardly mobile generation since the Great Depression” – gather for a country weekend. Joseph, a columnist from Toronto, hopes to connect with his teenage daughter, only to discover that the last thing she wants is his undivided attention. The farm where they stay is owned by Joseph’s former lover, Jane, whom he’s still crazy about, and her husband, Alex, once Joseph’s best friend, now an estranged rival. Jane and Alex also have a teen girl. At sundown, the adults embark on a booze-and-drug-fuelled bender, realizing too late that the girls have disappeared. Joseph and Alex enter “tens of thousands of acres” of darkened woods to search for them.
The story is told from Joseph’s wry, arrogant, painfully self-aware perspective. He is riddled with debt and ashamed of messing up his marriage, not to mention failing dismally as a father. Joseph strains to be a mensch, but can’t repress his classic urges toward male misbehaviour. His arch, psychologically astute humour creates an interesting dissonance, highlighting genuine pain and the longing to be a better man. The reader gets evocative glimpses of the female characters – Jane is particularly intriguing – but the novel is focused on the men.
Grainger can write; there is scarcely a slack sentence here. The search in the primordial forest is extraordinary: nightmarish as a dark fairy tale, a terrifying submersion in the male id. Harmless lays bare the primal impulses that lurk beneath the slick surface of our seemingly civilized lives. Clear commitments for an afternoon and night: this novel is best devoured whole.