Jack Hodgins’ literary career has spanned more than three decades and resulted in a Governor General’s Literary Award (for the 1979 novel The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne) and the author’s induction into the Order of Canada. This spring will see the publication of his eighth novel for adults, The Master of Happy Endings, and the republication of his first novel, The Invention of the World, which originally appeared to critical acclaim in 1977.
These two books are separated by more than 30 years, and much else besides. The Invention of the World is a wild, ambitious romp. Inspired by magic realists like Gabriel García Márquez, the novel moves back and forth in time over the span of a century, and tells the stories of the inhabitants of a single plot of land on Vancouver Island. One part of the novel is set in the 1970s and centres on Maggie Kyle, who runs a boarding house and rents out cottages on her property. The other recounts how the house and cottages came to be built by Irish settlers led by a messianic giant named Donal Keneally. (One of Kyle’s boarders is Keneally’s elderly final wife.)
The Master of Happy Endings is more conventional. Set in the present, it follows the adventures of a single protagonist through a series of obstacles, leading to a final climactic problem, which is successfully resolved. The protagonist is Axel Thorstad, a retired high school English teacher and widower who offers himself up for “adoption” to a family with a youth in need of tutoring. A lifelong “servant of love,” Thorstad is a nearly Bellovian character. He ruminates on Chaucer and postulates frequently about the meaning of life. He is modern, ironic, and self-conscious, unlike any of the characters in The Invention of the World.
The earlier novel, in fact, is hobbled by mythology and earnestness, though portions of the book remain sharp and compelling. In particular, Maggie Kyle is a memorable character, and the passages introducing her and the menagerie of lively characters that surround her contain the best writing. However, the back story that explains the odd mission and mythological origins of Donal Keneally, who is a homicidal mix of brawn and genius, hasn’t aged well.
Ultimately, The Invention of the World fails to convince. Scenes in the novel’s present seem realized; scenes in the past seem forced. The two never integrate into a convincing whole, though the ambition of the novel is clearly evident throughout.
The Master of Happy Endings suffers no such failure. Thorstad joins the family of a former student whose teenage son has a small recurring part in a television drama in California. The ex-teacher agrees to accompany the youth to the Golden State, where he is largely unsuccessful in preparing the boy for his final exams. However, he reconnects with a former colleague whom he last saw nearly half a century earlier. They once shared a beachfront cottage for a week before she hit the big time as an actress and married another of their colleagues. Thorstad finds the (now ex-) husband in a nursing home and ruminates on all that has been lost and all that has never been.
What The Master of Happy Endings lacks in gravitas, it makes up for in strong storytelling and powerful characters. Hodgins’ latest novel is a testament to the notion that the secret to a happy ending may well be not worrying too much. Thorstad is high on life’s rich pageant. His exuberance rubs off on the reader.