“Let’s get this straight,” states Sam Samson, Ray Robertson’s latest protagonist. “I’m not in denial. Nothing has been repressed. I haven’t bypassed my pain. And what I’m most not is haunted. Only people in sentimental movies and overwritten novels are haunted. I’m sad. Real fucking sad.”
Fortunately, Ray Robertson’s seventh novel is not overwritten, being penned in the stark yet warm rock ’n’ roll prose that has become his signature. Yet, rather ironically, Robertson may be displeased at my discovering a few haunted passages scattered about the pages. Such are the perils of writing on themes such as death, love, and nostalgia, as I am certain both he and his protagonist would agree.
Sam is a fairly successful author (in Canadian terms), having written several acclaimed novels and non-fiction works. Sam is also psychologically unmoored; he is forty-four years old, his wife recently died, and his father is suffering through the last stages of Alzheimer’s. Moving into his parents’ home, ostensibly to take care of his father’s affairs, Sam also starts banging away at a new book that thus far has eluded him, a book he assures us is not based on his current life:
I’m not going to write a novel about Sara dying because writing a novel makes things go away. A novel is one long delicious scratch that makes the itching stop for good. A novel is a two-year puke of pain and pleasure that cleans out the sweet poison inside entirely, at last. But if you lose the poison, you lose its root cause, too. I don’t want to lose my roots. My roots are mine.
All this, plus Sam’s book-in-progress on the last days of his favourite musicians, makes him an obvious candidate for a mid-life crisis. And when a wryly-observant teenager named Samantha makes his acquaintance, I had deep fears I Was There the Night He Died was making its way quickly into dreaded Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, wherein a free-spirited young lass shows a polar-opposite male specimen how to live life to the fullest. Cue Garry Marshallesque sitcomy montage of Zooey Deschanel and Steve Carell going on spontaneous road trips to the beach and shopping expeditions to funky antique clothing stores, all set to the ridiculously overplayed lyrics of Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl.
Yet it never (oh so thankfully) quite works out that way. I Was There the Night He Died may have a familiar set-up, but Robertson artfully skirts the pitfalls of cliché even while his narrative waltzes through some recognizable steps. The basic outline is a literary standard—the “you can’t go home again” scenario, leavened with “why would you even want to?” cynicism—but within that framework Robertson creates characters who dance and sing even as they suffer the malaise of life we all are intimate with.
Beyond the rich characters—and the Sam/Samantha combo is among the most appealing duos I’ve come across in some time, each broken by life and resilient by nature—Robertson has a great deal of fun with his chosen profession, poking sly jabs at the stereotypical image of a writer while at the same time paying tribute to it.
For the particular line of work I’m in, being a selfish sonofabitch is a professional prerequisite. Underpinning a poet’s love of language and a playwright’s ear for dialogue and a philosopher’s itch for absolutes is the author’s screaming only-child egoism that will not allow anything or anyone to stop him from doing what he wants to do: namely, playing God with the people and places he creates.
As Robertson is also a Canadian author in his forties (as am I, lending the novel a personal verisimilitude Robertson very likely did not intend), one might hypothesize I Was There the Night He Died isn’t necessarily fiction—and lines like “Novelists are nervous vampires who depend upon the busily living for their sedentary livelihood” don’t disprove this theory. At times, considering Sam’s voluminous rants on what it means to be a writer, it feels like Robertson practically dares the reader to conclude the novel is actually a thinly veiled autobiography.
I have no proof of this. Perhaps Robertson actually did try to help a troubled youth with late-night tales of musical genius, as Sam does. Perhaps Robertson is feeling the mid-life urge to take stock of his accomplishments and reframe them in the light of personal tragedy. Like Sam says, it’s the author’s right to mangle reality as he or she sees fit, just as it’s the reader’s right to simply sit back and enjoy. I Was There the Night He Died is intimate, moving, and while the terrain is familiar, Robertson takes enough left turns and side streets to make it fresh.
Biblioasis | 288 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-1927428696