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The Ravine

by Paul Quarrington

Here’s an interesting question: when does stylistic inventiveness cease being an adventurous literary approach and become merely chaotic and contrived? In this, his 10th novel, Paul Quarrington goes out of his way to keep his reader off guard, frequently changing narrative modes, switching from straight exposition to passages of uninterrupted, unattributed dialogue to sections that are laid out like a television script.

Out-of-work television writer Phil McQuigge is the quintessential unreliable narrator. An alcoholic suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress dut to an incident in his childhood, McQuigge’s first-person narration constantly calls itself into question, demanding that the reader decide what is true and what is exaggeration or outright lies.

All of which is fine as far as it goes, but Quarrington wants to have things both ways: he wants narrative ambiguity, but he also wants the reader to take the trajectory of McQuigge’s story at face value. The arc of the novel is one of redemption, beginning with the traumatic incident in McQuigge’s past – which is presented elliptically – and proceeding through the trials of McQuigge’s adulthood, which include a failed marriage, a number of affairs, and the death of an actor, for which McQuigge blames himself. The final section of the novel involves a kind of ad hoc pilgrimage in search of a missing comrade in the hope that by confronting the demons of his past, McQuigge can finally find some peace in the present.

Throughout the book, Quarrington works hard to keep the various narrative elements under control, and for the most part he succeeds. Only in the final stages, during that hyper-kinetic and event-filled road trip, do the pieces of the story start to fly off in different directions. There is a nicely ambiguous telephone conversation at the novel’s close – one of the speakers is unidentified – but this subtly effective touch is not quite sufficient to rescue the novel from its essentially contrived and heavy-handed finale.