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Book Reviews

The Fall of Gravity

by Leon Rooke

Don’t suspend disbelief. Don’t arrest it, curtail it, or unfrock it. Disbelief is in the fine print scratched at the bottom of Leon Rooke’s literary contract. What the meta-narrator of The Fall of Gravity calls “the realistic mode nearly everyone prefers” would only dessicate this supremely lubricated novel. If we relinquish anything to read Rooke, it should be sobriety. And tipsy women are best, because “women make the best readers, are more tolerant, more receptive to a work’s extremes, as indeed they are with all of life’s traffic, its cumbersome details, the plodding weight of years refusing inspiration, renewal, affection’s grander stuff, while men are better off left working with their hands, spending their time with tools more natural to the male instinct, let’s say a stick.” Why, thank you, yes indeed.

Joyel Daggle is on a year-long road trip in another woman’s Plymouth, running from her gated-community family – husband Raoul and wisecracking 11-year-old daughter Juliette – and maybe some bad guy in retro eyewear who seems to be tailing her. Dad and kid are in pursuit, in their occasionally personified Infiniti 130, up and down and around North America – Missouri, Montana, Minnesota, British Columbia – following mostly red herrings and blind leads, staying in every martini-shaking Best Western on the continent. They want Joyel back and blame themselves for her dash. Gin, tears, nostalgia: Juliette argues with the pansies on her dress, Raoul weeps behind shower curtains. For his part, Rooke tempers all the big-ticket emotions with humour.

The novel’s perspective ricochets – mom to dad to kid to oversexed car and of course to that anti-realist narrator (who sounds like a cross between a less psilocybic Tom Robbins and a less historic George Bowering). We also meet a troupe of conventioneering fallen priests, a “New Indian” making all the state fairs, a couple of deadbeat dogs, deer and antelope playing, and the Pope, who inside each motel TV apologizes for beheadings and flayings and other “vast crimes committed in the name of God” throughout history. Just try to connect the dots between them all.

“Commonplace language is a language usually reserved for realistic novels, for the life under siege, who knows why,” remarks the narrator. But Rooke’s trademark North Carolina preacher’s rhythms unhinge the commonplace. And, as is evident in his couple of dozen other books, he is a magician of minimalist comic dialogue: “‘I married you,’ the man said, ‘because I believed I was as boring as you are. Then I got my teeth straightened.’” Even without a truly driven plot, without high realism and its crafted evocation of setting, The Fall of Gravity is intoxicating.

Rooke’s narrative tricks have been called “empty virtuosity” (give me a Dubonnet over ice for every uber-sober critic who’s dissed metafiction), but his techniques are tempered by a tangible appreciation of the inner lives of women. Rooke’s compassion is both comic and heartfelt – as when Joyel questions the source of her dissatisfaction. What could make her desert a lovable family and drive a bad car in bad weather for a year? “Other than ennui, apathy, asthma, anemia, chapped lips, pill-popping, insomnia, flaky nails, earwax, flat feet, an occasional discomfort in the urinary tract, stupidity, pronounced deficiencies in the kitchen, an obsession with tidiness, a neurotic temperament, the son of a bitch behind her, a marriage that wasn’t one hundred percent the rosy ideal, a baggy fanny, falling breasts, fat thighs, cracks and fissures in the sternum…” Why, thank you, yes indeed. That is it precisely (except for the tidiness), how did you know?

Raoul, though not graced with Rooke’s own insights into women, is portrayed with gosh-almighty sympathy. He knows he had something to do with Joyel’s disappearance, but what? Knows he has been jilted, but why? Knows he must raise an 11-year-old quipmaster, but how? Even after a year of encounters with willing female kickboxers, phone sex aficionadas, and call girls, Raoul does not betray Joyel. He’s a party boy (emphasis on boy) but at least he keeps driving. That female reader whom the narrator idealizes (or was that sarcasm?) might interpret Raoul’s traits as supine disingenuousness. Clue in, Raoul, she might suggest.

Rooke may be a playful tempter, but the game does get annoying. He’s the loud-mouthed joker sitting up at the bar: the banter is relentless and only really funny over a couple of rounds. Rooke’s sentences, characterization, and even his artfully fragmented structure are often sloppy and uncontrolled. Little Juliette – okay, she’s not supposed to be realistic – brings to mind Jodie Foster in that child-star-jerk movie. She gets some good lines, but the tangled world of a motherless 11-year-old should encompass more than lippiness and naughty, creepy pansies on her dress.