Monday, February 02, 2009

And, the 2009 Toronto Book Award Should Go To … Girls Fall Down

This posting is meant to heap praise upon Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig. But first, a brief history lesson.

[L]et me describe some recent events in my neighbourhood. They're really incredible. One of the Italian restaurants on my favourite street of crowded Italian restaurants was bombed. The bomb didn't do much damage -- it went off outside, and so only blew the windows out.
There is much gossip about who or what this is all about, and I don't know what's true. [...] Whatever the case, something odd is going on. You'd think it would be rich material for storytellers.
Now here's my point: State, quickly, which Canadian novelist would be most likely to take on this milieu? Quick, now. Name a name. I cannot think of one who would be even interested in weaving fiction out of this event-filled environment. (Except me, of course, but I confess I haven't attempted the world of petty crime yet. I will try.) I can, however, think of a lot of readers who would read such stories.
-- Russell Smith, Dec 11, 2002 Globe column

[R]ussell Smith, the Globe & Mail columnist [...] Not a bad fella, but one who's prone to making some fairly ridiculous Torontocentric pronouncements from time to time.

To wit: After a bomb went off in an Italian restaurant on Toronto's College Street last December, Smith decried -- as he does every couple of months or so -- CanLit's failure to engage with the burning issues of the present day. He accused Canadian writers "of being so lofty-minded that they are unwilling to sully their hands with contact with the corrupt and superficial City." Why, Smith asked (mere days afterward, mind you), had no-one made use of this "overheated and violent and pretty great material? Quick, now. Name a name. I cannot think of one who would be even interested in weaving fiction out of this event-filled environment."

And then, stepping up to the plate, Smith wrote without irony, "Except me, of course, but I confess I haven't attempted the world of petty crime yet. I will try."
-- Noah Richler, Feb 13, 2003 NPost column

Why am I wasting your time with these two clowns, when my main point is to inform you of how blown away I was with Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig? An excellent question. Because while Noah and Russell were swinging dicks, Helwig quietly went off and utilized the raw material discussed above (that being the December 2002 explosion at Coco Lezzone):

On Monday night he was walking west on College, towards his apartment, with his hat pulled down to his eyebrows and his scarf over his nose, and then sirens were coming from all directions at once, and the street became a sea of red light, fire engines and ambulances and police cars all meeting at a point on the north side, a restaurant with a broken window.
Alex didn’t want to know what it was about but he was reaching into his camera bag nevertheless […] and he was packing his camera away when something came towards him out of the dark, shining and unpredictable, a fluttering thing, and before he knew what he was doing he had put out his hand and caught the string of a gold foil balloon in the shape of a star.

Then the whole cluster of balloons tied to the restaurant’s patio fence broke free and were swept up in the wind, into the bare branches of the overhanging trees, into the awnings along the street, a flock of golden stars reaching out of the damage. Alex stood in the street and held on to a string.
“A very miniscule bomb, though,” said Evelyn, poking at the casserole with a knife. “And of poor quality. Nobody was really hurt. They don’t have access to the good explosives at the low end of organized crime.”
-- from the superexcellent novel Girls Fall Down

And there, in microcosm, is a perfect illustration of gender relations: the men argue pointlessly while women actually get things done.

And, in this case, get it done much better than a man might have. Here’s Helwig on the Distillery District:

He stood with Susie in a long channel of mud, under the heavy brown-brick walls of the abandoned Victorian factories, slabs of wood laid over the wet dirt where there would someday be cobbled walkways. The sun came over the high buildings in shards of cold brightness, breaking out from a soft dense sky. It was a good day for light, slightly diffused through cloud, not too harsh.

Here and there, new businesses had already opened – a coffee shop, a microbrewery, a small art gallery. But most of the space was still inchoate, forming itself out of the memories of fallen industry, sweat and dust and darkness.

Here’s Andrew Pyper (The Killing Circle) on the same place:

Takes another turn into the grounds of the old Gooderham & Worts distillery. A few clustered blocks of Dickens’ London shoehorned between the expressway and condo construction sites. Long, Victorian brick barracks with smokestacks at their ends like exclamation points.

The past slows me down. It’s the cobblestone streets that turn anything faster than a walk into a tiptoed dance. During daylight hours, the doors on either side open into galleries and cafes, but they are locked now.

Yawn. Helwig’s version is so superior that further comment demeans us all.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about fictional representations of Toronto lately, and I read The Killing Circle to see how Pyper would bring Queen and Bathurst and Kensington Market to life. I found his attempts at conjuring place less than successful, whereas Helwig makes the landscape her own. Pyper wrote an article for the Star last year, explaining how magical, important and mysterious his neighbourhood (Queen and Bathurst) is, and why it was the perfect setting for a novel. But like a newlywed, Pyper seems to lack critical distance or perspective about his better half, and is thus unable to articulate the source of his passion for Toronto.

If Helwig doesn’t win the Toronto Book Award for Girls Fall Down, it will be a crime of a far greater magnitude than the homicides committed by the serial killer in The Killing Circle.