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Home Movies

by Ray Robertson

As its title suggests, Toronto writer Ray Robertson’s first novel, Home Movies, could be read as an attempt to forge a new independent Canadian film sub-genre: urban cowboy loser noir. It fails even as it succeeds, in a Russell Smith discovers Hank Williams Sr. via Quentin Tarantino (butchering a cowpunk Stephen Dedalus) kind of way.

Another edgy Toronto book with, granted, a unique provocative twist, Home Movies is hell-bent on taking up the post Gen-X slack and spinning the definitive yarn of disaffected longing and ennui. Often this produces the right twang for a fun hurtin’-song of a novel. Following James Thompson, a small-scale country-and-western success story, in his quest to rediscover both his roots and inspiration, Robertson hits many sweet notes. James is complex and engaging, searching for a way – reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s characters – to tell his own story. A wonderfully wry, insightful narrator, he’s at times a little fish lost in unfathomable depths, at times a rural philosopher king.

Of course, hipster residents of the Big Smoke will be pleased to find familiar hotspots and dives thinly disguised in high picaresque fashion, silly punning names replacing the solid, evocative monikers these places actually bear. Robertson’s problems, however, begin with his big-city-pleasing, pop-culture base. Scott B., for example, is a real local guitarist of no small talent; he shouldn’t be a fictional bassist for James’ band The Paddocks. And dropping references to Dwight Yoakum, kd lang, and Wheel of Fortune tend to date the text.

Home Movies becomes a better novel when its hero’s bus pulls out of Toronto. Robertson’s lush reconstruction of James’ small-town home and bizarre family history is captivating. And the wonderful portraits of his wise but curmudgeonly Uncle Buckly, his friend M.C., and his sexy “stalker” Melissa are rewarding enough to get readers through short passages of inexplicably overwritten, tortured syntax.

Datum, Ontario, for Robertson, is a place of lyrical possibility. And ultimately, it’s the magic of formica, semi-pro baseball, and the back porch that give James what he’s looking for: “a real song…with words to it.”