“I was as sane as any man in the twenty-first century can expect to be,” says the protagonist of The Heavy Bear, “dragging the bloodied pelt of the twentieth century behind him.” Prolific poet Tim Bowling’s fifth novel follows its lead character (also named Tim Bowling) as he wanders the streets of downtown Edmonton on a late-summer day. Tim is about to turn 50, and as he approaches his own mid-century mark, the character, wary of Time’s wingèd chariot, also worries that he may become irrelevant as an artist. “A product clanked out of the machine” and trapped in the straightjacket of his own lived time, Bowling’s melancholic hero is a cross between Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, absorbed in the contemplation of his own place in a modern world “awash in cynicism, materialism, and grotesque sentimentality.”
Tim travels with an unlikely group: the ghost of silent film star Buster Keaton; American poet Delmore Schwartz (a spirit guide who takes the form of the eponymous bear from his famous poem); and Chelsea, a student who shares striking similarities with the fictional character Pippi Longstocking. Both Keaton and Schwartz are figures from the previous century who, in their middle age, dealt with the same issues that now confront Tim: absent fathers, advancing technologies, materialism, and the fallibility of their own art. As the ever-solemn Keaton fades in and out of sight, Schwartz lumbers alongside Tim, who finds he cannot escape the burden of his own anxieties.
As the day unravels and Tim is pulled into an adventure involving a capuchin monkey, an antique toy, and the girl who may be his key to the present, Bowling’s novel slowly shifts into focus. Readers who embark on the journey hoping to find meaning and moments of human connection will need to persevere through Tim’s pensive musings until he himself finds meaning and connection. Throughout, Bowling slips in whispers from Frost, Thoreau, Conrad, Bishop, Marvell, Lawrence, and Eliot. This intertextual medley spans centuries, and helps usher Tim to a place of authority regarding the next stage of his literary life.
Bowling’s command of language is effortlessly beautiful; part of the brilliance of the novel is in the way it prompts you to consider your own engagement as a reader. (For instance, I found myself falling back in love with those mournful poets mentioned above, who lamented the shifting of an age.) The haunting portrait of Keaton is particularly moving, even while the portrayals of Chelsea and Schwartz feel, at times, more successful in function than form.
Don’t let that deter you, however. Those of us who carry with us the pelt of the 20th century will wander, nodding, along with Bowling’s hero. A brilliant novel that successfully reads as poetry combined with aspects of memoir and thought-provoking cultural critique, The Heavy Bear promises there is much that is redeemable in life’s next stage.