Along with Richard B. Wright’s October and D.R. MacDonald’s Lauchlin of the Bad Heart, David Helwig’s new novella is one of a string of recent Canadian books that centre on men of a certain age coming to terms with the fact that they are, well, men of a certain age.
In Helwig’s case the man in question is Warren Thouless, “recently retired teacher, long-retired actor, aspiring thinker,” whose wife has left him to pursue a “spiritual journey” among the elephants of India. When a young ex-student named Tessa Niles convinces Warren to move into a deconsecrated church and convert it into a theatre, he drags out his old copies of Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard and contemplates returning to the boards as the stage manager in a production of Our Town.
Smuggling Donkeys is quintessential Boomer lit: the aging protagonist contemplating the lost glories or missed opportunities of his youth while being spurred on to recapture his youthful exuberance. The person who does the spurring is, naturally, a young, attractive woman who arouses incipient passions in the protagonist. Decorum dictates that he will not act on these passions, though there is a suggestion at the end of the novella that such a liaison may occur at some point in the future.
What rescues this from being yet another exercise in literary wish fulfillment is Helwig’s intelligence, sense of play, and impeccable comic timing. Warren’s narration is relentlessly priapic; he muses longingly on “the drunken and ithyphallic angels of flesh” and when he imagines a deity appearing in his room, the figure has “a stone phallus emerging from the bright garments, pointing upward, ringed with flowers, awaiting its worshippers.”
Helwig peppers his story with literary references, and one inspired set piece has Warren performing a secular version of the Stations of the Cross, replacing the words of the Catholic ritual with soliloquies from Hamlet.
By keeping the tone comic and insouciant throughout, Helwig deftly skirts the solipsism that might otherwise have infected the novella. Smuggling Donkeys is a story of new beginnings late in life, but it has the good grace to have a sense of humour about it.