If Laurence J. Weller’s life is a maze (and whose isn’t?), it is most definitely not the one of Greek legend, a complicated, malevolent labyrinth where a Minotaur strides angrily, wiping out brave soldiers. It is more likely the garden variety. For Larry – a Winnipeg florist turned landscape designer who specializes in mazes – is ordinary – the consummate Everyman. And once again, Carol Shields, that master of the ordinary, bard of the boring, has created an achingly hilarious and engaging new novel out of the commonplaces of one person’s life.
Following the bumbling but endearing Larry Weller through his late 20s, 30s, and into his late 40s, Larry’s Party is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (sometimes he does, in fact) tour through the major social movements of the past 50 years. Along the way, Larry accumulates the usual baggage – ex-wives, a son, dead parents, friends, and colleagues in various towns and cities. The thing that makes this tour interesting isn’t Larry – “he was just one more citizen of the Larry nation, those barbecuers, those volunteer firemen, those wearers of muscle shirts” – it is Shields’ gentle rendering of his inner world: “It was hard enough to remember he was a husband, much less a father. He had to remind himself, announcing the fact to the mirror every morning as he blinked away the ghost of his father’s face. Husband, husband – one husband face pushing its way through another....”
This ability to make the ordinary electric is what has won Shields such acclaim (including the Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries). But this time, she’s successfully (at least to this female observer), evoked a man’s fears, loves, disappointments, and struggle for self-knowledge. No small feat, considering that everything of consequence that happens in the novel happens inside Larry’s head. Perhaps this emphasis on internal turmoil is why, when the reader is reminded at the beginning of each chapter about the events of the previous ones, it seems so glaringly unnecessary, as if the book was written to be excerpted in self-contained bites. But this repetition is a small price to pay for an otherwise seamless piece of writing.
Carol Shields, of course, knows that human beings are rarely so seamless; and though it might be tempting to suggest a definitive analysis of the mazes in Larry’s world – that they represent death or sex or the whole jing-bang struggle of life itself – she doesn’t. Their significance changes as Larry does, the only common thread the comfort of their classical structure, their twisted predictability. No neat answers, just ordinary struggle crafted in an extraordinary way.