Quill and Quire

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Progress

by Michael V. Smith

The second novel from Michael V. Smith (whose first, Cumberland, was nominated for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award), opens with a death, seen from a great distance. Helen Massey is picnicking at the grave of her long-dead fiancé, Garrett Keenan, more to get out of the house than out of a genuine need to remember him. There is a hydroelectric dam being built outside of town, and she is watching the construction site through her late father’s binoculars when she sees what looks like a man falling to his death. Helen can’t see his body, but she sees men pouring concrete where she thinks he landed. Unable to cope with what she thinks she’s seen, Helen retreats home.

That opening scene serves as a metaphor for Helen’s entire life. Fifteen years before the novel opens, her brother Robbie, a crystal meth addict, ran away from home, but as with the incident at the dam, she is unable to get to the truth about his disappearance, in part because her family has wilfully kept her in the dark. She lives in her childhood home and works at the same place she did in high school. After nursing her parents through illness and death, she refuses to move, and doesn’t change a stick of furniture.

Helen tries to entomb herself within the safety of home. She wants desperately to cling to her slow, solitary life, but the new dam necessitates relocating practically the whole town because it will be flooded. However, Helen’s house is too fragile to move, and so is slated for demolition. On the day she witnesses the scene at the dam, her brother Robbie returns to deal with the buried secret that broke the family apart, in the process threatening to tear down the metaphorical walls Helen has built around herself.

Though Smith’s prose is elegant and readable, the plot is almost entirely devoid of tension. The novel takes place over the course of about a week, a fairly compressed timeline given all the dirty laundry that needs airing, but the pacing is off: the book is unnecessarily, at times almost painfully, slow.

Smith pays considerable attention to things like Helen’s gardening, her clothes, the placement of keys on a table, and the details of minor characters’ living spaces. Sometimes these details matter, as when Robbie goes to a man’s apartment for a casual hookup; everything about the man’s home signals that he is a drug addict, and foreshadows Robbie’s own imminent relapse. Most of the time, however, the focus on picayune details only serves to undermine any sense of urgency Progress may have.

Additionally, Smith telegraphs the nature of Robbie’s secret so early it’s robbed of suspense. By the time Helen finally figures it out (her brother can’t work up the courage to tell her directly), readers who have already pieced it together may have grown impatient waiting for Smith to get on with things. Even after Helen has worked things out, Smith makes us wait another 110 pages before finally filling in the missing details.

At the outset, Robbie is secretive, paranoid, and full of anger. Some of this anger is justified; most of it is displaced from the dead parents he can no longer confront onto his naive, underachieving sister. Robbie’s anger toward Helen makes him appear selfish and petulant. Added to Helen’s chronic indecisiveness, it becomes hard to care about their history or the possibility of reconciliation.

Smith handles Robbie’s relapse into drug addiction far better. Robbie’s depression and self-delusion, which start with checking into Internet chat rooms and viewing online pornography, and eventually spiral into a full-blown sex-and-drugs bender, are more emotionally affecting than the angst and nostalgia that permeate the rest of the novel. Smith shows us Robbie’s struggle with addiction, and his friend Colin’s tireless patience about it, with a sharpness the first half of the novel mostly lacks.

In addition to the sombre family drama, Smith includes an overly complex subplot about civic upheaval centring on the construction of the hydroelectric dam. But it is only when Smith pushes everything else aside and focuses on the rawness and immediacy of Robbie’s pain, abandoning the time-worn technique of using the present as an excuse to wallow in the past, that his novel comes alive.