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The Phoenix Lottery

by Allan Stratton

If it were a crime to be too clever by half, Allan Stratton’s first novel would represent a guilty plea. The Phoenix Lottery delights the reader with its Swiss-watch precision plotting, confident dialogue, and engagingly loopy characters. What is more, it has the courage to never engage our hearts – a daring move in an Oprah-driven age.

Heartlessness is a requirement of any good satire, and The Phoenix Lottery is essentially a satiric take on the tightly interwoven worlds of art and commerce. Here, big business takes the form of Beamish Enterprises Inc., a firm about to pass into the hands of Junior Beamish. He is the neurotic, well-intentioned, therapy-addled son of the company founder, and he plans to make up for daddy’s years of buccaneering capitalism by creating and funding the country’s biggest charity. Which he does. And it’s wildly successful – for a while. But when it starts to founder, and threatens to drag BEI down with it, Junior decides to save the day with a classic fundraising stratagem: a lottery. The prize? The opportunity to publicly incinerate a Van Gogh self-portrait worth millions.

Enter Lydia Spark, small-town girl, as neurotic as Junior but quite possibly a talented artist. Enter a great many characters, in fact – a Roman Catholic cardinal, the Pope, Fidel Castro, the female proprietor of a house of pain, an Inuit sorceress, a Cuban sorceress, a reptilian Toronto art critic, and many, many more.

If there’s a fault here, it’s that Stratton doesn’t know when to stop. He’ll build a comic scene by heaping ludicrous unlikelihood upon ludicrous unlikelihood, and just when you’re about to say perfect‚ he adds another pratfall. Or two. (The funeral scene is very funny, but did the corpse have to lose its false teeth?) It’s the fault of a generous nature, though – one that hasn’t yet learned that if you’re excessively clever, you can get twice the effect by doing half as much.