Cary Fagan is a prolific writer for both adults and children, with several picture books, novels, and short-story collections under his belt. His writing has garnered praise and awards, including the Toronto Book Award and the Jewish Book Award (twice). His most recent novel for adults brings its protagonist, musician Huddie Rosen, back home to Toronto from Europe. Hiding from an imploding marriage, he finds more at home than he expected: his mother, a lost love, and a memorial for Valentine, a friend who died 25 years earlier when he fell from a roof while wearing a full set of antique armour. The thread that runs through these disparate stories is Huddie’s all-consuming love of bluegrass music, which is beautifully described throughout. These descriptions are moments of calm in an otherwise hectic and sometimes outlandish story.
The simplicity and directness of Fagan’s writing is admirable, and it comes out especially in the music. Huddie often escapes into reveries about music, bringing the reader along for the ride: “[The mandolin’s] sound was narrower and either harsher or sweeter, depending on how it was played. There was something more primitive in its voice, wilder. It had a faster heartbeat, like a small animal.”
But much falls apart in the telling of this quirky story. In fact, the story itself is a rehashing of many of the movies Huddie would have grown up watching: it is The Big Chill meets Eddie and the Cruisers with a dash of Goodfellas for spice. As a result, most of the plot twists are expected, and everything seems familiar enough to quash any tension or emotional connection. Chapters often end on an overly poignant and heavy-handed note, such as when Huddie leaves a restaurant and passes an old acquaintance’s dog: “When I reached down to pat its head, the dog barely raised its tail.” There is no special meaning to this; it illuminates nothing.
The central parts of the novel – the plot concerning Valentine and his fall – would be better glossed over. The real gems are the music and Huddie’s mother, sadly languishing in her basement, selling records on eBay.