By Todd Babiak. McClelland & Stewart, 382 pp, $32.99, hardcover
Edmonton journalist and author Todd Babiak is making an oeuvre out of wry comic novels set in Alberta. His third story, The Book of Stanley, slides neatly into this series, and if it's not as multidimensional as it might be, it's charming and energetic nonetheless.
Protagonist Stanley Moss is at death's door as the novel opens, disappointed by but resigned to (how Canadian) his own demise. Then: "There was within him a pressure so great he thought his heart had stopped.”¦Everything he had learned about death was wrong. It was not easeful or romantic.”¦A pulse of blue light filled the yard and the land underneath the back deck quivered."
Far from dead, Stanley is reborn, acquiring powers faster than bad guy Sylar from Heroes.
But to what end? Surrounded by well-wishers, sycophants, and opportunists, Stanley determines to found a religion, The Stan, based on”¦ Here the novel collapses under the weight of its conceit, because it can't be both a polemic decrying late-stage capitalism's spiritual vacuum and a wry comic novel about how Banff is a portal to the damned. Even in its rather generous 382 pages, Babiak–perhaps rightly–steers the pendulum back to the latter, and The Stan crumples thanks to a deus ex machina ending notable for its unapologetic transparency.
This makes The Book of Stanley sound superficial, which is both true and not. Babiak cleverly invents a divine character who then fades from his own pages, leaving readers to wonder–even as we grumble that our protagonist is nigh on invisible–if we're not as bad as the worshippers who flock to Stanley determined to have their own needs met. A character reflects: "I know why Stanley has been chosen–for his humility and his confusion. When we sit around and talk about the purpose of a religion, we're killing it. We've strip-mined God. Spiritual matters are so literal and functional today, and political, that they're abhorrent. There's no mystery left.”¦Religions aren't meant to answer the hard questions. Religion is the hard question."
Perhaps so, yet Babiak–having stubbornly left a hero-shaped hole in his novel–hasn't really provided us with the material to construct greater meaning. Which means the novel is only as good–and as wry–as those who read it.