Although we have never met, I knew I liked Darren Greer from the moment I started reading his essay collection, “Strange Ghosts” (Cormorant Books, 2006), particularly the opening piece entitled “Remembering Felix Partz” in which he writes about gaining an appreciation for contemporary art while wandering through the National Gallery of Canada as a patient in a drug addiction treatment program, later diagnosed with HIV.
The experience in the NGC was an inspiration for his compelling novel, “Still Life with June” (Cormorant Books, 2003). Although I read the book some time ago, I remember loving the character of June, the woman with Down’s Syndrome. What I have always liked about Darren’s work, aside from the fact that the stories are always engrossing, is that he writes about Salvation Army workers, drug addicts, criminals, people in the margins, but he doesn’t turn them into caricatures or standard bearers, he just has them try to deal with whatever’s going on. He makes them real and he makes their dilemmas plausible. I went on to read and enjoy all his novels and am currently rereading “Strange Ghosts” and if I can figure out where I’ve shelved “Still Life with June,” I’m going to reread that too. If I loaned it to you, please return it.
“Advocate”(Cormorant Books, 2016) is the story of Jacob McNeil who works as a counsellor in Toronto at a men’s outreach centre. He returns to his small town of Advocate, Nova Scotia to see his dying grandmother, with whom he has a complicated history. The story is also about the treatment his Uncle David received from his family and the town when he returned to Advocate in 1984. In the course of the novel, we learn that David has AIDS. Certainly he is the first person to have AIDS in that small town. Their reaction is to shun him and his family. Political and religious authority figures ban him and his family, including a twelve-year-old Jake, from taking part in any activities or entering any public buildings. . In Jake’s case, he is first told he can’t enter the school library and then he is not allowed to attend school. When his uncle dies, no undertaker in the town will bury him, nor will any religious institution give him a funeral. Compassion comes from outside the town and from the Indigenous community. It’s interesting that compassion in this book comes from those who are not part of the status quo. The people of Advocate, divided on Catholic and Protestant lines, but religious, are afraid of contagion and believe that the disease is God’s punishment for homosexuality.
When the young Jake first encounters his Uncle David, he is resentful of his presence, but as time goes on, he gets to know him and comes to love him. David is intelligent, has been a teacher and is well-read. He befriends, Henry, fellow bibliophile and the town’s only black person, who Jake also gets to know. Henry is one of the people to spend time with David. We see the terrible scourge of the disease through Jake’s eyes. The portrait of David is drawn with compassion and accuracy.
It is easy to treat human suffering as abstract. The talent of Darren Greer is that he doesn’t let us do that. He gives us a close up view of suffering and shows how intolerance causes heartbreak and sorrow, in addition to the horror of AIDS, particularly when it was first discovered and diagnosed.
The grandmother is the matriarch of the family after the death of her husband, the town’s doctor. She is used to getting respect and she expects to be treated with the same. When David comes back to live in the family home, his grandmother is not pleased. She never accepted the fact that he was gay. When the town begins to treat her and the rest of the family badly because of David, we see some cracks in her armour, but she never yields in her lifetime and by the time she is dying, it is too late.
On her deathbed, she asks something surprising of Jake. In order to do what she asks, Jake has to sift through his feelings for his grandmother and the way she treated his uncle and decide if he can acquiesce.
The grandmother is controlling and judgemental. The townspeople are superstitious and ignorant but they are also afraid and we see that fear when the water supply is tainted and the population sickens. They assume that the sick have come down with AIDS, given to them by David, the only person in the town with the disease.
I particularly enjoyed the character of Bernadette, or Deanny, who first appears as a young girl from the wrong side of the tracks who causes Jake to get dirty for the first time in his life, much to the horror of his grandmother. Deanny goes on to be an influence in Jake’s life, always pushing him to date a new man. She is also one of the few people to show compassion to David. I think Deanny could have a book of her own. I’d love to read it.
Jake, the main character, is well-rendered. We see his struggle as someone who likes order, who is put in a situation where there can be no order; his uncle is dying, his grandmother and the town are acting in ways he doesn’t understand. He likes to line up his fingers “perfectly on the paper, so large equations could be distilled magically down to one final and irrevocable number equal to a variable of x or y.” He starts to discover his own sexuality when his uncle is dying of AIDS. He is afraid of the ramifications of his attraction to males and not females. He is confused when his grandmother forbids him to play with the Easy Bake Oven he finds in the attic. He takes a biology class in order to learn about the virus so that he won’t be frightened of it.
He decides to abandon a potential career in mathematics in favour of working as a counselor, after seeing what his uncle has gone through. Perhaps it is that intimate knowledge of his uncle’s suffering that makes it difficult for him to treat clients clinically, taking their difficulties too much to heart, but he also has issues with personal intimacy, with forming relationships with other men. Jake struggles throughout the book and my heart goes out to him as it does to David.
I haven’t spoken of Jake’s mother or his Aunt Jeannette, but they also play important roles in the book, acting as foils to his grandmother’s strict and narrow-minded attitudes. They also take care of David with love and compassion.
I wouldn’t be an appreciator of poetry, if I didn’t mention the vivid imagery in this book. Early on, in Jake’s biology class, the virus is described as “shaped like a dodecahedron…coloured green, with small barnacles all over it. It looked like a child’s toy, or a badly made Christmas ornament.” The descriptions of the family homes are fascinating and deliberate: the depression era glass bowl, the statue of a black boy with a fishing pole on the lawn, the garden gnomes. There’s poetry and humour in the descriptions of the Orange and Lemon parades given by the Irish Protestants and Catholics. There’s symbolism in David’s St. Jude medallion.
The book shows how intolerance and fear can take hold and lead to inhumanity and lack of compassion. In this post-truth era, the book seems particularly relevant.
Darren Greer is one of several Canadian writers who I admire and read extensively in the fields of poetry, fiction and nonfiction/autobiography. He, along with Amber Dawn, bill bissett, Michael V. Smith, Heather O’Neill, Bill Brown, Marcus McCann, Daniel Allen Cox, Lynn Crosbie, Nelly Arcan, Tom Walmsley, Tamara Faith Berger, Billeh Nickerson, and Zoe Whittall, to name a few, write strongly, with humour and compassion, and deal with issues of estrangement and intolerance based on sex and sexuality, poverty, family dysfunction, gender and orientation, managing to make the issues real and personal. These are subjects that I am concerned with, obsessed with. These are my people.
I will end with a quote from “Strange Ghosts,” which epitomizes why I like this man and his writing:
“Artists are also canaries in the mineshaft of the world—they, we, are people who have never learned to express in socially acceptable ways our anxiety for the state of the world.
So here I am, thirty-seven years of age, and my teacher’s prediction has, thankfully, not come true. I have never learned, for better or for worse, to live with things simply as they are. I am still that hopelessly inarticulate, socially awkward boy, standing in front of my audience and crying out for everyone to listen, for everyone to open their eyes and try just for a minute to honestly and truly see.” “Elugelab: Canaries in the Mindshaft of the World.” (Strange Ghosts)
Please note that any inaccuracies, errors and spelling errors are my own. -- AE