Gently Down the Stream, by Ray Robertson

Cormorant Books, 335 pp, $29.95, hardcover.

Hank Roberts would likely agree with the young Mick Jagger who sang, "What a drag it is getting old." The Toronto 30-ish underachiever watches himself grow fat and his dog grow old while all around his friends are reaching their dreamed-of successes: his wife, Mary, is building a career as a painter; his university drinking buddy Phil has a burgeoning career as a poet; Phil's girlfriend, Rebecca-whom Hank despises-is Canada's hottest new novelist. Is it any wonder that the former philosophy student, whose long-ongoing "work in progress" is an expansion of his decade-old honours thesis, turns to drunken karaoke, decongestant abuse, and minor-key urban terrorism (aka vandalism) to make his mark?

With his fourth novel, Toronto writer Ray Robertson has taken a turn for the domestic; it's not a comfortable fit. While his previous three, including the winning Heroes and the masterful Moody Food, have explored the lives of young men outside the mainstream (playing minor-league hockey in Texas and launching the country-rock boom of the late 1960s, respectively), Gently Down the Stream chronicles the gradual shoehorning of a free spirit into an utterly generic life (homeownership, regular job, death, sexual temptation, et cetera) in what becomes a fairly generic piece of fiction.

Largely absent from Gently are the thrilling, though contextually appropriate, leaps of imagination and insight that have characterized Robertson's fiction. Most readers will have figured out the bulk of the novel's major developments within its first 50 pages. Readers familiar with Robertson's previous work will likely be surprised not only by the simplicity of the novel-which often veers dangerously close to cliché-but also by the seeming embrace of banality it endorses.

Robertson's skills as a stylist are well illustrated by Gently Down the Stream. He doesn't allow the informal, colloquial quality of the narrative voice to interfere with his knack for turning a skilled phrase. Hank emerges as a well-developed, fully rounded character, and the supporting characters are almost as strong. It's a shame that the novel as a whole doesn't provide a better setting for them.