By Paul Quarrington. Random House Canada, 304 pp, $29.95, hardcover
With his latest novel, the frequently hilarious and oddly touching The Ravine, Toronto writer Paul Quarrington deftly—nay, maniacally—blurs the usually solid line between author and narrator to tremendous effect. Quarrington, whose previous books include the best-selling Whale Music and the recently crowned Canada Reads winner King Leary, and whose last book, Galveston, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, has been forthright in recent interviews about the autobiographical nature of The Ravine, which chronicles the alcoholic descent of disgraced screenwriter and producer Phil McQuigge.
Unemployed, separated from his wife, distanced from his children, and alienated from most of his friends, McQuigge passes his days drinking himself into a stupor in his Toronto basement suite, and fills his nights talking on the telephone to anyone who will listen, including crisis-line attendants and long-distance operators. Reeling from a tragedy that has shattered his life—and is only revealed late in the book—McQuigge sets out on a two-fold quest: to write the novel he has always threatened to write, and to explore the roots of his own destruction in an incident from his childhood. As he says in the book’s first telephone conversation, “it seems to me, Carlos, that I went down into a ravine, and never really came back out.”
The novel McQuigge is writing over the course of The Ravine is, in fact, The Ravine itself, and Quarrington stocks this metafictional pond with a wealth of his own experiences, from his work in Canadian television to the dissolution of his marriage to his own struggle with alcoholism.
The Ravine is very clearly not a memoir, however, for one simple reason: it’s just too good. Although on the surface the novel seems ramshackle and unfocused, the sort of book a drunken neophyte might write, it is actually quite tightly structured, with significant symbolic value and impressively casual depth of characterization. Quarrington writes with a light touch and a wry sense of humour throughout, and has produced in The Ravine, as he has in most of his works, that rarest of beasts: a Canadian novel that will make you laugh, as well as think and feel.