‘Act Normal’ by Greg Hollingshead

Book Reviews

Act Normal coverReviewed by Lynne Martin

According to philosopher John Wooden, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Since reading Act Normal, Greg Hollingshead’s latest collection of short stories since 1995’s The Roaring Girl (Putnam), I can’t stop wondering about the people I see on the bus, at work, or in the grocery store—what bizarre things do they do when no one is looking? In fact, Hollingshead’s characters do strange things even in front of others, making me pay attention to the wackiness right in front of my nose, as well as the unrelenting weirdness in myself.

These stories act like Zen koans, snapping the reader out of automatic complacency and into an off-kilter state of mindfulness that is both amusing and dismaying. In this well-crafted, droll collection, Hollingshead — Director of the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre and a long-time creative writing teacher — offers the reader the kind of paradigm shift one hopes to get in an artist’s workshop or a long-term meditation practice, even while he pokes fun at the way we sometimes pursue such a practice (“The Retreat”).

Throbbing with the wonder and absurdity of life in suburban North America, each story explores the disconnect between what we believe about ourselves and the sometimes ridiculous yet oddly inevitable decisions we make. Even while we laugh at the antics of Hollingshead’s characters, we also love them because despite or even through their eccentric behaviour they mirror the poignant reality of being human. The author eschews the use of quotation marks for dialogue, thus blurring the line between speech and thought. Though I found this confusing at times, it did highlight the puzzle of differentiating between outer appearance and inner reality, a major theme of the collection.

“Unbounded,” the first of the collection’s twelve stories, tells about a woman’s coming to terms with her partner’s leaving her. This is such a common occurrence you’d think the story would have nothing new to say; indeed, even her name, “Dorry,” suggests that many of us are in the same boat. But rather than undertaking some clichéd life-changing action, she decides to replace her backyard fence. From there, Dorry moves beyond her self-protective instincts to forge new friendships with neighbours and discovers her own way forward through her encounters with Lorne, the fence-builder she hires.

Lorne has his own issues, including debilitating depression that keeps him away from his work at Dorry’s for several weeks. When they finally reconnect, Lorne quotes from Jeremy Taylor’s book Holy Living, to which Dorry replies with a paraphrase of Henry More. Nothing about either of their lives would suggest they could connect on such an intellectual level, and one would expect this conversation to bog down in a mire of earnest sentiment, but the sequence is laugh-out-loud funny: when Dorry learns that Jeremy Taylor is not a local musician but a seventeenth century philosopher, she replies, “Jeepers creepers! Hold on while I turn off the iron.”

A similar mixture of absurdity and wisdom permeates every other story in the collection. The unnamed Everyman protagonist in “The Retreat” freaks out during a cult-like ten-day meditation retreat for men, and when he finally escapes, he finds a stripper with whom he becomes a modern-day consumerist Holden Caulfield— until he goes home to his wife. Nothing about this story seems normal, yet everything is plausible given contemporary upscale North American values. Hollingshead brilliantly skewers Canadian middle-class culture while mostly maintaining empathy and affection for his characters.

Far less affectionate and more savagely funny is “Lapsang Souchong.” Here the satirical fairy tale voice tells us that we are to be laughing at these characters instead of sympathizing with them: “Once there was a man named Booth who had so little psychology, who was so innocent of the difference between how he saw things and how they were, that he might as well have been an American.”

Booth, an unlikable rube who believes he knows the score, becomes an entertainment journalist in California sent to interview Roger Dowbiggin, a sleazy billionaire who has made his money producing reality TV shows. Though the author, like Dowbiggin, shows no empathy for any of his characters or show participants, switching to Dowbiggin’s point of view part way through the story allows the reader access to his motivations, based in his desire to do something so random that no one could explain how his action could have been predicted. Though we too care nothing for the fate of the characters here, we are drawn, fascinated, to the end of the story, which is bizarrely logical yet startlingly unexpected. I guffawed on the bus reading this one.

Two later stories have the opposite effect—we can’t help but be invested both in the pain of teenaged Nick as he tries to come to terms with his father’s moral collapse in “The Force of the World” and also in the vicar-general priest’s struggle to reclaim his conscience in “Miss Buffett.” These stories reflect a deep compassion for people trying to grow, maintain, or regain a sense of ethical integrity in the face of family or institutional pressures to sell out. Rather than evoking laughter, these nuanced descriptions of the main characters’ inner agony will haunt you.

Almost all the stories are in one way or another love stories. Some depict the beginning, middle and/or end of heterosexual or homosexual romances. Some explore the love between fathers and sons, whether linked biologically or as mentors and protégés. A few delve into the trust or lack of trust among neighbours or work colleagues. By examining relationships with such a discerning yet mostly compassionate eye, Hollingshead invites us to learn more about ourselves.

Winner of the 1995 Governor General’s Award for English language fiction for The Roaring Girl, Hollingshead also won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize for his novel The Healer (1998). In 2012, he was named a Member of the Order of Canada. Funny, thought-provoking, sometimes gutwrenching, sometimes tender, and always whimsical, these new tales by one of Canada’s most accomplished and celebrated writers will stay with you long after you reluctantly put the book down.

Anansi |304 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1770899704

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Lynne Carol Martin

When she’s not writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays, Lynne Carol Martin tutors at Red River College and teaches English for Business and IT Professionals at the University of Winnipeg. She also runs a business called Clear Voice Enterprises, helping students and professionals hone their communication skills. Her monologue Good Enough was performed at Sarasvàti’s International Women’s Week Cabaret of Monologues in March 2016.