George Fetherling's Tales of Two Cities

George Fetherling introduced himself to me in December with an e-mail invitation for a drink at the Sylvia Hotel. There was no big agenda, he explained at the time. He did mention that he wanted to suggest an article and give me some books.

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised that the books were his own and the pitch he made was a profile about him. The fact that Fetherling's aggressive approach worked attests to the liveliness, intelligence, and humour found in his company and in his new book, Tales of Two Cities ($20).

The title novella (in a book rounded out with a handful of short stories) concerns an affair between a middle-aged Toronto literary agent (and narrator) and a younger woman in Vancouver. Having moved to Vancouver, the unnamed agent sifts through the aftermath while developing an interest in on-line pornography.

Tales of Two Cities seems to belong to a subgenre of fiction that has sprung up in recent years, about the affairs of older men with younger women that includes titles by J.?M. Coetzee (Disgrace), Philip Roth (The Dying Animal), and Francine Prose (The Blue Angel). "I feel no kinship at all with the books you name," Fetherling asserts. "What prompts late-middle-age interest in the erotic? A growing sense of one's mortality."

The celebrated author and editor of over 50 books, Fetherling, much like his novella's narrator, moved from Toronto to Vancouver five years ago after a serious illness and a divorce. (He's also a regular book reviewer for the Straight.)

"I've been coming and going in B.C. since the late 1960s," he explains, "and after Toronto and London, Vancouver is the city I know best. It's not an especially welcoming community for writers like me who are far outside the beat tradition. Also, I find it a very difficult place to earn a living. Sometimes I feel as though I couldn't even get jury duty here. But there are compensating virtues, of course."

Fetherling, whose previous book, Jericho, was published by Random House, released Tales of Two Cities through Subway Books, a small press that he founded in 1994. Fetherling bristles at the suggestion that he's self-publishing. "The book isn't really self-published-no more than Margaret Atwood or Dennis Lee self-published theirs at Anansi"-referring to the famed independent press that employed Fetherling in the 1960s-"or Michael Ondaatje his at Coach House."

What make Tales of Two Cities such worthwhile reading are the pithy, guillotine-sharp observations and barbs on every page. In the novella, Kitsilano is swiftly, perfectly pegged as a "former seat of flower power, now the den of decaffeinated ambition". In a later story, "Island Cruiser", the residents of Bowen Island are tagged as "former hippies who've grown rich and go to bed every night worrying that their pubic hair is turning grey".

In these stories, Fetherling displays his familiarity with these locales while placing his narrators as outsiders. "Am I an outsider?" he muses, when the topic is raised. "That's not up to me to say. You'd have to ask some insiders."