About the Author

Nino Ricci

NINO RICCI's best-selling Lives of the Saints (published in the United States as The Book of Saints) won the Governor General's Award for fiction, the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and the F. G. Bressani Prize. The New York Times Book Review hailed it as “an extraordinary story — brooding and ironic, suffused with yearning, tender and lucid and gritty . . . [The author has] perfect pitch and brilliant descriptive powers.” This was the first book in a trilogy and was followed by In a Glass House — “beautifuly written and tireless in its pursuit of emotional truth” (Times Literary Supplement) — and Where She Has Gone, which was a finalist for the Giller Prize.

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also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
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A WASH OF CHEMICALS floods David’s brain and at once the urge is there, irresistible. What is the trigger, what switch opens the floodgate? If he could find it, he could control it. But even to think of the urge is to bring it on.

“Dad. Dad!”

These are the times it overtakes him: When he is reading. When he is watching. When he is listening. At the crossroads of action and thought, the mind’s gathering place, the very place where he lives.

When he is driving.

“Daddy, wake up!”

He hears a thundering like a stampede, he sees chariots, horses. Then the image splinters and there is only the noise itself, jagged and black, until finally the expressway pixelates into clarity and he realizes he has veered onto the rumble strip.

A car is stopped on the shoulder not a hundred metres in front of them. They are headed straight for it.

“Dad, there’s a car!”

Afterwards David will never quite be able to sort out his memory of what happens next in any way that makes sense. It will seem as if he has split in two, on one side of him the nuclear blast of sensation, the thump of his wheels, the stopped car, his son’s grating terror, on the other an eerie calmness, as if every fibre in him has long been preparing for just such a moment, when everything hangs in the balance. He will be amazed how much data has been left in him by an event that has happened in the blink of an eye. The slant of autumn light through the windshield. The colour of the car, silver-grey, he is heading toward. The look of its driver, a small, dark-skinned man, Middle Eastern or Asian, who has stopped to make a call or stretch his legs or take a leak, as he innocently turns to check for traffic before opening his door only to discover that death is bearing down on him. And already before it comes, David sees the crash, the mess of twisted metal and broken glass and ruined flesh.

He jerks the wheel hard and the car bucks like a wild animal, no longer under his will. His body has braced itself for impact but, impossibly, the impact doesn’t come. Instead there is only a suck of air from the far side of the car like the pull of something’s gravity, the scream of a horn as David overshoots his lane and nearly sideswipes a passing van. Then, as quickly as that, the danger has passed. As if it had never been. Already the car on the shoulder has receded to a harmless glint in the rear-view mirror.

David’s heart is pounding. He digs his little pill container out of his pant pocket and dumps the pills onto the passenger seat, then grabs two by feel and crunches down on them. Do not chew. They are bitter like cyanide, like hemlock. But pointless now: he is fully awake. 

He can feel Marcus eyeing him from his car seat in the back.

“You fell asleep,” he says.

“I wasn’t asleep.” But already David has taken the wrong tack, has responded to the boy’s accusation rather than to his fear. “I just closed my eyes for a second, that’s all. Because of the sun.”

David nudges the mirror to get a better view of him, sees how his shoulders have hunched, how he has balled himself up in his gloom and distrust. He is barely five but already he carries his moods like an adolescent. At the zoo, where they were visiting, he fell into a sulk over a trinket David refused him at the gift shop, and now he will roll this new, larger hurt into the old one, each lending weight to the other. When did he become like this, so vigilant, so hungry for grievance?

David knows he ought to say more about what has happened but is afraid that saying more will only raise the event’s importance in the boy’s mind. Will only make him more likely to report it to his mother.

“Sit up straight, please. We’ve talked about that.”

A thin line of fire burns a path through David’s veins as the drug enters his bloodstream and he feels a panic go through him, nothing like the adrenal rush of the near accident itself but a sense of being vulnerable after the fact, as if by some loop the moment might replay itself, differently. He realizes, suddenly, that his whole body is trembling. It happens sometimes when he is agitated, this loss of control, another of his symptoms.

The sheerest luck has saved him from killing his son.

Daddy, wake up.

He casts another look back at Marcus.

“Almost home now,” he says. “Almost there.”

A hesitation, then the inevitable question.

“Will Momma be there?” 

He is never enough. He is never the last recourse.

David lets the question hang.

They merge onto the valley parkway to find it backed up for miles, lurching forward in tiny spurts as the sun sets and the trees along the parkway flame up like an apocalypse in their autumn colours. Julia will be livid that they are so late, that David hasn’t called. It has crossed his mind to call any number of times, but each time he has resisted, knowing that she herself will never be the one to call. This is how she tests him, piling up her grievances the way Marcus has learned to. The behaviour of children.

He feels the dull throb of a headache beginning from the spike in his medication. For the next few hours, his heart will pound like a battering ram. He takes advantage of the stalled traffic to gather up the pills still scattered on the seat next to him: stupid to have let Marcus see them, to risk his mentioning them. Right from the start David has kept Julia in the dark, has passed the blame for his symptoms onto insomnia, late nights, overwork, has hidden from her the doctors’ visits, the clinics, the pills. That is his default with her now: to hide any sign of weakness, anything that might give her ammunition.

His mind keeps circling back to the instant when the crash felt inevitable, trying to sort out what saved them, though already it is hard to say how much is real in what he remembers and how much is the illogic of whatever dream he had slipped into. A deep brain disorder. That was how Becker put it, his sleep doctor, a fleshy Afrikaner with the hectoring twang of an apartheid politician and the parboiled look of a village butcher. A breakdown in the border that separated waking from sleep. As if sleep were some rebel force that David had let overrun him, leaving him condemned now to live in this place of constant incursion, where nothing was safe, nothing was certain. 

A police cruiser squeezes by on the shoulder, then an ambulance. It occurs to David that the loop he has imagined has really happened: somewhere ahead, a version of the horror he has averted is playing itself out. He will drive by and see his own child lying dead, his own double howling in bloodied agony. At the image, something like relief stirs in him, as if only now has he dared it, the sense of a cosmic reprieve, a second chance. This is exactly the sort of thinking he is constantly having to root out of his students, whose notions of historical process don’t go much beyond mindless mantras like Everything happens for a reason.

He takes out his cell phone and sets it to speaker.

“Just calling your mom,” he says to Marcus, and he can feel the boy’s mood lift.

She picks up on the first ring.

“Christ, David, where are you? It’s past six. Why didn’t you call?”

Why didn’t you?

“We’re stuck on the parkway,” he says evenly.

“For fuck’s sake! I thought we talked about using the cell when you’re driving!”

He allows himself the smallest pause.

“We’re on speaker, actually.”

The behaviour of children.

Into the silence David adds, evenly again, “We had a nice day at the zoo.”

“That’s just great, David, I’m happy for you. I just wish it would cross your mind sometimes to think of someone other than yourself.”

The call leaves David circling along a well-worn path of anger and self-justification. It’s her, he tells himself, this implacable she-wolf she has been ever since Marcus was born, framing everything he does as a betrayal of his most basic duties as husband and father. The defence has become so knee-jerk in him by now that he seldom thinks beyond it. That she doesn’t call because he accuses her of checking up on him, of being controlling. Or because he might be in class, or in a conference, or driving home. Because in a thousand ways, over the years, he has made it known not to call. Probably all afternoon she has been fighting the urge to call him, meanwhile imagining every horror. He has learned that about her, though she doesn’t show it, how deep her fears go the second Marcus is out of her sight, how primordial they are, beyond reason.

It is fully dark by the time they reach the source of the holdup. An accident, yes, but less tragedy than farce. A moving van has spilled it contents and sent half a dozen cars into a minor pileup, emergency crews sorting through the wreckage and traffic choked down to a single lane. Debris from the van lies heaped at the roadside etched in the halogen glare of the highway’s mast lights, a half-sprung sofa-bed, splintered end tables, ruptured moving boxes spilling clothes, shattered dishes, DVDs. The van itself is farther up, back doors still open, sitting alone at the side of the road as if the accident had nothing to do with it. David makes out two forms, a man and a woman, hurrying toward it in the dark clutching armfuls of salvage.

Idiots, he thinks.

Past the bottleneck he picks up speed at once. The red tail-lights of the cars ahead of him weave through the highway’s dips and curves as if riding the air, held disembodied by the dark swath the valley forms against the backdrop of the city. He remembers driving here as a teen in his first car, a reconditioned MG he’d paid for out of his own pocket, the top down and the pedal to the floor while his blood pumped through his veins and the wind roared around him. Back then the valley seemed some hopeful landscape of the future, with the river winding its way toward the lake beneath the flyovers and cloverleaves, and the skyscrapers of downtown beckoning in the distance. Now, he realizes, he is looking instead at the past, that all this is part of an order already in full decline.

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A Novel
also available: Paperback
tagged : religious
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The Origin of Species

Part One

May 1986–

There has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism.

Walter Benjamin
“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” VII

Chapter 1

The girl standing in the foyer when Alex went down to get his mail, trembling slightly on her cane, was Esther. Not a girl, really: a woman. Everyone in the building knew her. Or everyone, it seemed, except Alex, who, in the few months since he’d moved here, had never quite managed to be the one to open a door for her, or put her key in her mailbox, or start a conversation with her in the oppressive intimacy of the building’s elevators.

She was looking out through the plate glass of the entrance doors to the street, where sunlight now glinted off the morning’s earlier sprinkling of rain.

“I wouldn’t go out there if you don’t have to,” Alex said, then regretted at once his admonitory tone.

From the confusion that came over her, plain as if a shadow had crossed her, it was clear she hadn’t understood.

“The rain,” he said.

“Oh!” She looked up through her thickish glasses at the now cloudless sky and her whole face seemed to twist with the strain of trying to follow his meaning.

“Chernobyl,” he said, making a botch of it. “The fallout. They say you shouldn’t go out if it’s rained.”

“Oh-h-h!” She drew the word out as if in understanding. “Really? They say that? Oh!”

“They’re saying the clouds might pick the radiation up over Russia, then dump it somewhere else. At least, I think that’s what they’re saying.”

It suddenly occurred to Alex, though the story had been practically the only thing in the news since the Swedes had broken it a few days before, that she didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.

“You know, I heard about that,” she said, and Alex was relieved. “About Chernobyl. Isn’t it awful?”

They stood there an instant while Alex half-turned, not wanting to put his back to her, and awkwardly retrieved his mail, which was just junk, it looked like. But in that instant’s lull it seemed he’d lost whatever conversational thread there’d been between them.

Esther was still standing at the doors, neither going out nor coming in.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a cigarette, would you?” she said finally, looking right at him. “I mean, if you could spare one.”

That was how the day had got started. Alex did indeed have cigarettes, but up in his apartment, and although he’d considered lying – he didn’t like the idea of giving a cigarette to someone who was clearly Not Well – it finally ended up, despite his protestations that he simply fetch one for her, that Esther followed him to his place to get one herself. There weren’t any more awkward silences from then on: in the elevator Esther launched at once into a disarming rush of revealing personal anecdote, so that by the time they got out at Alex’s floor he was dizzy with excess information.

“What about you? I don’t even know your name.”

“Alex. It’s Alex.” Then he added, stupidly, “Alex Fratarcangeli.”

“Oh! Really? Frater – oh! That’s interesting.”

“Don’t worry,” he said quickly. “I can’t even pronounce it myself.”

Alex’s apartment was on the seventeenth floor, which had been the chief selling point when he’d rented the place, some feeling still surging in him – hope? vertigo? – each time he opened his door to the expanse of cityscape and sky through his living room windows. He’d left the radio on, tuned to the CBC: there was an interview coming up with the prime minister that Alex was perversely anxious to catch, largely because he despised the prime minister, from the very depth of his being, despised every false word that dropped from his big-chinned false mouth. He could hear the interview coming on as he unlocked the door, Peter Gzowski’s honeyed coo and then the mellow low of the prime minister, false, false, although Peter, and this was the side of him that Alex couldn’t stomach, simply carried on in his fawning amiability as if the man was actually to be taken seriously.

Esther was still talking. So far, Alex had learned that she was a student, like he was, at Concordia, though he hadn’t been able to gather in exactly what; that she’d grown up in Côte St. Luc, a possibly Jewish neighbourhood somewhere on the outskirts of the city, though he couldn’t have said exactly where; that she lived in the building because it had a pool in it, though he couldn’t quite reconcile this detail with her condition, which seemed to involve some issues of motor control. The fact was he was finding it hard to attend to her, not only because he was a bit overwhelmed by her barrage of talk and because he couldn’t quite help trying to catch the interview going on in the background, but because of a host of other matters clamouring for attention at the back of his brain: his appointment with Dr. Klein, for which he somehow already seemed destined to be late; his class at the Refugee Centre, for which he’d hardly prepared; his final lesson at Berlitz with Félix, his cash cow, and the concomitant prospect of a depressingly low-income summer; his theory exam the following day, for which he’d hardly studied. Then there was the phone call home he had to make, the post-exam party he had to host, the grant forms he had to fill out, and in the middle and not-so-far distance the questions he did not even dare to give a shape to at the moment, though they were the pit above which everything else seemed precariously suspended.

In the background, the prime minister, having dodged the subject of Libya, was going on about Chernobyl, trying to cast himself as the calm leader in troubled times. Please, Peter, please, Alex thought, ask him a tough question. Though in truth, Alex revered Peter: he credited him with his own discovery of Canada, which had happened, ironically, in the couple of years since Alex had left Canada proper for the foreign country of Quebec. And he revered him despite his occasional fawning, his boyish stutter, his too-frequent feel-good pieces on apple baking or native spiritualism or peewee hockey; and also despite, or maybe because of, the comments you sometimes read, usually buried by timid editors in the last paragraphs of lengthy profiles, that the instant the mike was turned off – though Alex could understand this perfectly: the mike was who he was, what he gave everything to – he turned into an unmitigated bastard.

Esther, who by now had settled herself on his couch, was explaining to him the notion of something she called “an exacerbation.” With a start, Alex realized she had been telling him about her illness. It began to sink in that she’d actually named it and he’d let that crucial bit of information get by him. Somehow, she’d managed to slip the thing in as if it were just a casual aside: Oh, by the way, I have blah­blah.

“So what about you, Alex? What do you do?”

“I’m at Concordia, too,” he said, realizing, guiltily, that he ought to have brought this up earlier. “I mean, I study there.”

“Really? You don’t say! What a coincidence!”

In fact, it wasn’t much of a coincidence at all: probably half the people in the building were students at Concordia, whose hub, the infamously ugly Hall Building, stood just kitty-corner to them.

When Alex tried to explain his program his description struck him as even more convoluted and opaque than Esther’s had been of her own. He’d initially been admitted to the university under Interdisciplinary Studies, in a mix of literary theory and evolutionary biology, of all things. But then the university had decided it couldn’t handle such a broad crossing of disciplines and he’d ended up in the English Department.

“I guess I’m trying to find the way to bring the arts and sciences together,” he said. “You know, a sort of Grand Unified Theory.”

“Oh – you mean – art and science –”

The shadow had crossed her ­again.

“That’s just a fancy way of saying I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

Alex had long ago handed over the cigarette Esther had come for, but she had placed it carefully in the little pink handbag in padded silk that she carried over her shoulder, struggling a bit with the clasp, though he hadn’t known whether to offer help. To have with her cappuccino, she’d said, which was where she’d been heading when Alex had run into her.

“Do you really think it’s dangerous to go out?”

“I dunno, the rain’s probably all evaporated by now. Anyway, I doubt we’re any safer inside.”

She had risen and stood leaning on her cane at his door. Alex didn’t like to admit to his relief at finally seeing her go – they hadn’t been together more than twenty minutes, yet he felt exhausted.

In the background, the prime minister’s interview was winding to a close.

Well, Peter, I know Canadians just love what you’re doing here.

“Say,” Esther said, “you know what? I have an idea. I could buy you a cappuccino, in exchange for the cigarette. I mean, if you’re not busy.”

Alex’s heart sank. It seemed unfair somehow to brandish his excuses at her, exactly because he had such good ones. It was that face, the transparency of it, the bit of desperation he saw in it now. She’d met a man, it seemed to say – even if it was as poor a specimen as Alex – and wanted him to like her.

“That would be great,” he said, “I’d love that,” feeling himself draw a little closer to the pit.

The entire mood between them shifted with Alex’s acceptance. Esther’s bright, false, coming-on personality replaced with a kind of childlike triumphalism. In the elevator, she hooked an arm in his and batted her eyes at him with exaggerated coquettishness.

“I guess you’ll just have to help a po’ little sick girl like me,” she said, then added “Ha, ha, ha,” to make clear she was joking. Alex had instinctively tensed when she’d taken hold of him as though expecting some jolt, some clammy frisson of diseased flesh, but in fact her grip was warm and firm. She had taken possession of him, it seemed to say, and would do what was needed to hold on to her claim.

Outside, they found the rain had indeed misted off into the ether, though whether the air hummed with evil ions in its wake, Alex couldn’t have said. In Sweden, radiation had reached a hundred times the normal level, and people were taking pills to protect their thyroid. No one knew if that was the worst of it – on the news reports so far, there hadn’t been a single image from the site. Instead, they kept replaying the clip from Soviet TV where a matronly anchorwoman, posed against a background of washed-out blue, had given the first official announcement of the thing, in four bland, unhelpful sentences.

Everything about the day, however, belied Alex’s sense of threat: the sun was out, the air was crystalline, and winter was gone, gone. There’d been ice on the ground only two weeks before, right into mid-April, the bane of Montreal living. But then a warm wind had come up and thawed the city overnight. The trees in the little church park at St. James the Apostle already had the intimation of leaves, a flock of something, starlings or sparrows or finches, chattering in their limbs.

Then there was Esther, for whom Chernobyl seemed little more than a conversation point. It was indeed true that everyone knew Esther: there was hardly a person they’d passed on the way out who hadn’t greeted her, and then once they were on the street all the shopkeepers called out to her as well, from the little depanneur on the ground floor of their building, from the hairdresser’s next door, from the little sandwich shop at the corner of St. Catherine. Almost to a one they winked at her for the good fortune of having a man on her arm. If Esther saw any condescension in this she didn’t show it, refusing nothing, no attention or offering.

“Oh, that’s Ilie,” she said, “he’s the one who usually gives me my cigarettes,” and, “That’s Claire, she gives me free haircuts.”

To his surprise, Alex actually found himself liking the attention they were getting. The world seemed different with Esther by his side: he’d hardly even noticed the sandwich shop on the corner before, or, for that matter, the church park. He also had never been to the Crescent Street strip, where Esther was leading him. It was only a couple of blocks over from their building, but had always seemed hopelessly tawdry and touristy next to his former haunts on the Plateau. Today, though, in the spring sun, radiation or no, he couldn’t understand why he’d avoided the place – it looked so sprightly and European and gay, with its little cafés all with their tables out front and their fancy railings and stylishly dressed servers.

The place Esther brought him to, however, was one of the cheesier ones, a glitzy bar called Chez Sud done up in an overwrought tropical motif like some Club Med resort, their cappuccinos actually coming out with little coloured umbrellas on them. Normally, Alex would never have ordered a cappuccino; it somehow irked his ethnic sensibilities, this passion everyone suddenly had for them. But he had to admit he liked the taste.

“I love this place,” Esther said. “I come here all the time.” And indeed it was clear from how everyone greeted her that she was well-known here, though the waitress gave Alex a conspiratorial smile behind Esther’s back as if to sympathize with his having got saddled with

Alex pulled his chair a bit closer to Esther’s.

“It’s just great,” he said.

Alex had planned to quickly down his coffee and then beg off back home to his work. But he wasn’t quite as anxious to be going as he ought to have been: the sun was shining and he was out here in the world, with Esther.

“It’s very interesting what you were telling me,” Esther said. “About the arts and sciences. That’s very interesting.”

“Oh, well. Maybe not so interesting.”

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Not Paved With Gold

Not Paved With Gold

Italian-Canadian Immigrants in the 1970s
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