Underneath the surface of Darren Greer’s latest novel lies the outline of a work that could have been great. Advocate entwines an account of the AIDS epidemic and its attendant hysteria with the story of an adult’s homecoming to the small town of his childhood, where he will encounter troubling memories of his past. While the combination of these scenarios could have presented some fresh opportunities, Greer does not successfully take them up.
This is not say Greer’s parallel plots lack dramatic potential. In the ’80s, estranged son, brother and uncle David McNeil moves back to the family home in Advocate, Nova Scotia, knowing that he will soon succumb to AIDS. His 11-year-old nephew Jacob and he, never having met before, begin to build a relationship at the same time as their relationships to their neighbours, and especially to homophobic matriarch Millicent McNeil, are crumbling. Eventually, in the panic about the his uncle’s disease, young Jacob is barred from school and most other places in town, and his family become pariahs just when they need community the most. These scenes set in the ’80s are interspersed with those set in the present day. Jacob has grown into a deeply troubled gay man living in Toronto. We meet adult Jacob as he returns to Advocate for grandmother Millicent’s immanent funeral. Greer sets up scenes of the town’s bigotry in their immediate, visceral reality, and his dual structure also offers a glimpse into the ways in which those past traumas ripple onward through the years, emerging in the twenty-first century as the fear and malaise that Jacob McNeil carries with him every day.
Advocate has some impact as a map of the emotional terrain of small-town marginality and the fragile alliances that form in even the most isolating situations. As the town’s fear of AIDS is turned on David and the rest of the McNeils, Greer demonstrates the sudden rupture of old affinities and the reformation of alliances best in his character Deanny McLeod—a grubby child from the wrong side of town who becomes part of the affluent McNeil family in its darkest hour. The most likeable person in the book, she comes to David’s defence with the least hesitation. But though Deanny is Greer’s strongest, most distinctive character, her presence in the book is lopsided: we spend a lot of time with her childhood self, yet there is little depth to her adult, present-day iteration. The remainder of the cast are either complex but somehow static (David, Jacob, grandmother Millicent) or barely realized at all. Some of the side characters, most notably Henry and Darcy, the book’s only non-white characters, are types whom Greer seems to deploy simply as symbols of solidarity among the marginalized. Considered in their broad strokes, the shifting small-town allegiances of Advocate ring quite true. But if he has the bones of a vibrant, engaging cast, in 300 pages Greer provides them scant meat.
Over and over Greer manages to dissipate the power of the scenes he sets in motion. When the family takes dying David for a walk in his wheelchair, only to be driven back inside by their neighbours—people amongst whom they have lived for decades—the standoff with such sheer fear and prejudice could be moving. Deanny, then still a child, is the one who stands up for David most boldly here. Greer takes that moment to explain that, “[p]erhaps because…of having to deal with little knots of opposition all her life…. She knew what it was like to have cooties, and to have no one want to play with you because of them.” Again, this rings true, but this facile unpacking of a character’s motivations works against the momentum of her gesture. Greer’s insistent over-clarification—he connects every dot—consistently telegraphs his plot points and undercuts moments that could otherwise be revelatory. Even the (admittedly emotionally affecting) climax in Greer’s final pages is somewhat undone by his constant, pat expositions. “The rain falls on us as we make our way out of the church,” he writes, and then undoes the poetry of the moment by explaining: “It is a cold benediction.” In refusing nuance, Greer inhibits most of the opportunities for reflection that Advocate might otherwise engender in its readers. Though good at setting the sails, he at the same time calms the winds.
It is impossible to deny the emotional salience of a story of small-town fear and hatred at the height of the AIDS crisis. But Greer’s treatment of his subject matter is unsatisfying, all the more so because he offers an unfortunate and unbalanced reconciliation with the agents of AIDS hysteria and bigotry as his final salvo. Though perhaps well-framed, Advocate ultimately disappoints.
Cormorant Books | 335 pages | $22.95 | paper| ISBN# 978-1770864719