BOOKS What’s in Bleak a name? Plenty of laughs
IN his fourth novel, Canadian writer and unabashed funnyman Terry Fallis asks the age-old question: “What’s in a name?” No Relation takes us to New York City, where we encounter an affable 40-year-old copywriter who loses his job, his girlfriend and his wallet within 24 hours. He has a spectacular meltdown at the DMV while trying to obtain a new driver’s licence, which is recorded by a stranger and uploaded to YouTube with the caption “Famous Writer Flips Out at the DMV.” His name? Earnest Hemmingway. Although the famous author’s name is spelled Ernest Hemingway, the slight difference in spelling matters not when it comes to the lifelong jibes our protagonist has endured. “My name intrudes daily,” he says. “A laugh. A smirk. A snide remark. There does not exist a line I haven’t heard.”
Fallis’s first novel, The Best Laid Plans, was the 2011 winner of CBC’s Canada Reads contest. Both his followup, 2011’s The High Road, and Up and Down were finalists for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. He has earned a place on the CanLit stage alongside Leacock and Will Ferguson. Fallis’s trademark humour appears early on, when Earnest Hemmingway (who prefers to go by “Hem”) is fired. His boss tries to soften the blow by saying: “You’ve got a huge package.” His response? “Well, kind of you to say, but I’m really more interested in the settlement you’re offering.” Hem is the fourth-generation male in his family to bear the moniker, and his father fully expects him to take over the family business, as is tradition. But Hem’s not interested; he’s always wanted to write a novel. He takes no cues from Hemingway. “I can’t stand Hemingway’s writing. His sparse, flat prose never fails to take something inherently interesting — think bull fighting or war — and make it sound, well, spare and flat.” As Hem deals with a bad case of writer’s block, he decides to find other people who suffer from the famous name affliction. He places an ad, hoping to meet a few interesting people. To his amazement, he meets 11 people who share in his burden. His band of misfits includes Peter Parker, Diana Ross, Jackie Kennedy, Marie Antoinette and Julia Roberts. His new friends try to help Hem tackle his writer’s block. “The sensation of rearranging the words in a sentence to heighten its impact, its interest, had all but deserted me,” he says. “No literary laxative could unblock my writing.” His quest for answers takes him on an uproarious world tour, but the writer’s block persists. The time Hem spends with his family is a pivotal point in his journey. Important truths are revealed through a warm, thoughtful dissection of family tradition and the oft-explored theme of following one’s dreams. These predictable yet feel-good plot twists are spiced up with a little corporate intrigue. Fallis is no Hemingway — nor does he want to be. No Relation delivers plenty of belly laughs, especially through Hem’s newfound friends, such as Mario Andretti, who wants to pass his driving test after failing the exam multiple times, and Mahatma Gandhi, a lovely but intense man with anger management issues. What’s in a name? A little insight, some life-affirming truths, and a whole lot of laughter.
Deborah Bowers is a Winnipeg writer.