‘The Walking Tanteek’ by Jane Woods

Book Reviews

The Walking Tanteek coverReviewed by Joanne Epp

Belief is no longer believable, according to some of the dominant cultural voices of our day. Maggie Prentice, the protagonist of Jane Woods’ first novel, knows this perfectly well. And yet, she says, “while it seemed that everyone in the shining post-post-modern world was wanting out of belief, I was shouldering against the jostling surge, barging the wrong way, wanting in.” The Walking Tanteek portrays Maggie’s search for meaning through the story of her strange and often messy life. While not exactly a likeable character, her voice is compelling: smart, brash, incisive, and often darkly witty.

As the first section opens, Maggie is a sort of caretaker to the Untouchables, a motley group of addicts and homeless people for whom her brother Gerard has appointed himself rescuer, disciplinarian and priest. She’s pretty much one of them herself, due to her heavy drinking habit, but she doesn’t like to admit that. Now in her fifties, she’s spent most of her adult life friendless and at odds with her family. Her most faithful companion is the invisible “friend” of the title, who is the embodiment of all her doubts and terrors.

Maggie looks to her past for the seeds of her present wretched state. The novel’s second section is a long reminiscence in which she catalogues the miseries of her childhood, adolescence, and abortive university career. She puts much of the blame on her mother, who nearly suffocated Gerard with her hopes and expectations, while barely speaking in complete sentences to Maggie. Maggie felt an affinity with her father, but their camaraderie ended when she hit puberty. Growing up feeling unloved and unheard, she responded in kind, full of resentment toward her mother and brother, sabotaging her rare moments of friendship with Gerard.

Fear haunts Maggie from early on. It’s fed by religious teachings of hell (to which, she’s told, her scoffing non-Catholic father will surely go) and by TV broadcasts of the Vietnam war. It really grows when her father thoughtlessly gives her the post-nuclear-apocalypse novel On the Beach when she’s ten. She is terrified of death, emptiness, meaninglessness.

That fear only grows as she matures, until it takes on a life of its own. “The walking Tanteek,” her garbled interpretation of a Bob Dylan lyric, is the name she gives to the terrors that are like a living thing to her. During her student days she walks the streets of Montreal, the Tanteek at her heels. When she returns to Toronto, the Tanteek settles in with her.

Maggie’s fear and misery, and her attempts to escape them, come to life in vivid images. “Drinking,” she says, “feels like lighting a crackling fire inside my cold glass box. It feels, at the beginning anyway, like someone’s moving all the heavy furniture out of the way, clearing the dance floor for big fun and frolic that almost materializes every single time.”

You can get carried away by the energy and extravagance of Woods’ writing, the aptness of her metaphors— like Maggie’s description of her high-rise as “a vertical green-glass ice-cube tray”— which is what makes this such an absorbing and even pleasurable read, despite how screwed-up most of the characters are. The language is also rich with literary allusions, particularly recurring references to Moby Dick, but also Biblical and liturgical language. These allusions tend to appear in moments of strong feeling, like Maggie’s hatred of her mother’s little dog: “Truth be told, the one point on which Gerard and I stand in militant solidarity is that we both vigorously renounce Winky and all of his pomps and all of his works.”

Maggie’s careening ups and downs are sometimes a little dizzying. Although the first section feels like it’s setting up for the rest of the novel, it doesn’t do that; Maggie abruptly closes that chapter of her life, unable to stay with the Untouchables when the little boys she grew to love are no longer there. The third section, which picks up where the first leaves off, begins with another sudden shift as Maggie unexpectedly reconnects with Liam, her one real friend from university. They fall precipitously in love: “Creaky and obsolescent as we are, we leap into this crazy thing like a couple of kids, holding hands, jumping, screaming as we drop from the high barren cliff into the sparkling blue lake.”

But here is where matters come to a head. Bliss evaporates as Maggie finds herself in a knot of contradictions. She loves Liam, but can’t live with his apparent unconcern for life-and-death matters and his flat-out hostility toward Christian belief. She hates what Gerard stands for— his austere gospel of self-abnegation and his punitive God— but can’t bear the thought of a godless universe. She dislikes her mother, but is still shaken by her death. The narrative allows Maggie’s questions and ambivalences room to spread out in all their difficulty and complexity, which is another reason this is such a satisfying read. Her search for God carries on despite her mother, Gerard, and Liam, and despite herself.

Not that she’s become a nicer person because of it. She’s still jealous, resentful, foul-mouthed, and paranoid. With her own mother she’s irascible to the point of spitefulness, almost to the end. Her final turning point follows an episode of truly disgraceful behavior, after which she deems it wise to skip town. But her story is all the more credible, even reassuring, because of this. The grace she finds— and she does find it, for this is an unabashedly positive story in the end— is definitely not earned.

Endings can be tricky, and the final section here feels too short. It begins abruptly after the long, slower-paced section in which Maggie’s life with Liam unravels, and packs in quite a lot of revelation in a short space. Some of this material could have used just a bit more breathing room.

Maggie’s hard-won wisdom involves steering clear of two kinds of certainties. There’s Gerard’s kind: unremittingly harsh, claiming a kind of salvation, but essentially bleak. And there’s Liam’s kind that appears bright and rational, but is ultimately a brittle veneer. Instead, she gains hope and assurance that don’t depend on having all the answers. She is finally wise to the Tanteek’s old tricks, battered but ready to keep walking.

Goose Lane | 448 pages |  $22.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0864929105

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Joanne Epp

Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg writer whose first book of poetry, Eigenheim, was published by Turnstone Press in 2015.