By Ken Murray. Tightrope, 288 pp, softcover
An introverted, museum-bound restorer of antique manuscripts, Will Oaks has fashioned a quiet and orderly life for himself in Toronto. Covered with fine, self-inflicted scars, he’s also the damaged and furious son of conservative parents from a Satan-has-literally-possessed-you sect. His mother, an overbearing sales rep for diet beverage Slender Nation, could rival Willy Loman for delusional ambitions and a willingness to ignore brute fact.
When these fundamentalist Christian elders die in a suspicious car accident, Will, an only child, must return to rust-belt Ontario to administer the estate and deliver a eulogy—about failed caregivers for whom he harbours immense rage, and to an audience of true believers he both fears and despises.
Will’s eventual speech, as conceived by Ontario-based debut novelist Ken Murray, is a masterpiece of dry obituary facts, half-truths, understatement, and ironies. Better still, in the absorbing novel’s second part, Murray uses phrases from the eulogy (“In 1967 he met Janet Stephen,” “May they rest in peace,” and so on) as thematic chapter headings. Through them he reveals sobering episodes from Will’s childhood and adolescence in Otterton.
Will explains that his eventual faith “became that one day, one day, I might get away from all this”. But before that born-again moment, he spent years witnessing his parents’ relationship (in short: “malice, barely contained”) and finding himself stuck in a “crappy little town” where the Rapture-centric routinely accused others of being “mired in the clutch of Satan”.
Even for notably dour CanLit depictions of youth, Murray’s snapshots are grim.
Will announces, “I will tell you what I saw. This is who we were.” And they’re discomfiting sights, especially the marriage, “a prolonged murder-suicide” featuring mutual hatred and “glacial violence”.
Desiring to make sense of himself and ignoring his parents’ philosophy of denial (e.g., “When the timbers of your house are cemented with bullshit, you ignore the smell and hope for the bullshit to hold”), Will later investigates their hometowns.
In the novel’s present, the deaths and the eulogy force Will to reexamine the “ordered yet desperate life” he’s built. Between a ruined romance, ritualized scarification, and self-administered pain-endurance sessions, it’s clear he still has progress to make.
A cautious optimist, Murray grants this wounded soul a chance for happiness while acknowledging the work required to clasp it fully.