Satire stum­bles on bor­ing hero­ine

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Rory Run­nells

AL­LAN Strat­ton is a ver­sa­tile Cana­dian nov­el­ist and young people’s au­thor who started his ca­reer as a play­wright. The Res­ur­rec­tion of Mary Ma­bel McTav­ish fol­lows his Lea­cock Medal for Hu­mour-nom­i­nated novel, The Phoenix Lot­tery. His new novel, like The Phoenix Lot­tery, is a skew­er­ing of so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially its re­li­gious struc­tures, of­fi­cial pom­pos­ity and hypocrisy, with its em­pha­sis on money and the eter­nal grasp­ing to get it at any cost.

Lit­tle escapes Strat­ton’s ma­chine-gun­pep­per­ing ap­proach to the world, and al­though one can be swept up into his propul­sive prose and in­tri­cate plot­ting, there isn’t much to take away from the story. Set in the early part of the De­pres­sion, the novel romps through the ad­ven­tures of Mary McTav­ish, a put-upon girl from south­ern On­tario with a repro­bate fa­ther and a dead mother — a saintly fig­ure whose spirit “vis­its” Mary. Tor­mented by Miss Ben­twhis­tle, the bor­der­line-evil head­mistress of the school she at­tends, Mary finds so­lace in her mother’s guid­ance, though she en­ter­tains thoughts of sui­cide. While at the town hospi­tal, she per­forms a mir­a­cle un­der what she be­lieves to be her mother’s guid­ance — bring­ing back to life lit­tle Timmy, sup­pos­edly elec­tro­cuted at a re­vival­ist meet­ing when he touched a metal cross hit by light­ning. The sen­sa­tion leads a re­porter, Doyle, from the Hearst press em­pire, to cover the story. Mary ends up in Hol­ly­wood, where both fic­tional and his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters crowd the scene, each with a mo­ti­va­tion to ex­ploit, hurt, or save her. Which leaves the reader where? Mary her­self is an im­me­di­ate prob­lem. Hardly a Can­dide cast out roughly into the world, or even an Alice down the Won­der­land rab­bit-hole of pseudo-re­li­gious/high so­ci­ety/Hol­ly­wood mad­ness, Mary is a bor­ing, sim­plis­tic goof. Sweet enough and trust­ing in her own way, even her fi­nal big de­ci­sion to turn her back on the evil she per­ceives in the big phoney world seems high-school­ish and vain. Her in­nate good­ness is ad­mirable, but she never comes to an in­sight about the world the way Voltaire’s Can­dide does. Her mother’s voice dis­ap­pears, but is that stan­dard “clo­sure” mo­ment enough? Even Strat­ton’s prose here is vague and stilted. De­spite the vivid­ness of ev­ery­one around them, both Alice and Can­dide re­main the cen­tral fo­cus of their ad­ven­tures. Not so with Mary. Strat­ton is clearly more in­ter­ested in the comic po­ten­tial of the fak­ers, schemers, big­wigs and even the mur­derer sur­round­ing Mary. For the most part, she isn’t even in the story when all the crazy stuff is go­ing on. Fur­ther, if Strat­ton be­lieves he is writ­ing satire, what’s the point? Do we need an ex­posé on the early ’30s with Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst and J. Edgar Hoover, for ex­am­ple, as char­ac­ters? How about the bo­gus (and later quite crazy) preach­ers (re­li­gion is al­ways a con with Strat­ton), fum­bling Com­mu­nist ag­i­ta­tors, or a fake Baroness who im­presses gullible Amer­i­cans? The book on the whole is too far­ci­cal and car­toon­ish for satire, and not bru­tal enough, de­spite the se­rial killer. Satire is even­handed; it aims at the reader as well as at the sit­u­a­tion it pre­sents. Strat­ton’s tone is smug; he chor­tles, and in­vites us to chor­tle, at these crazy or evil folks since, of course, they could never be us — or at least him. Nor is he sat­is­fied, de­spite his in­ge­nious plot­ting, with rais­ing a chuckle. He pushes for the big laugh, but his easy satire of­ten morphs into fussy sen­ti­ment. Wise­cracks abound, for ex­am­ple — “(he) wanted to change the world, but he feared all he’d ever change were his socks” — but not much wit. Where are the Marx Broth­ers when you need them? Rory Run­nells is the artis­tic di­rec­tor of the

Man­i­toba As­so­ci­a­tion of Play­wrights.

The Res­ur­rec­tion of Mary Ma­bel

McTav­ish

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