‘The Heavy Bear’ by Tim Bowling

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Richard Cumyn

Not many pages into The Heavy Bear, Tim Bowling’s latest novel, I was seized by the desire to watch The Railrodder (NFB, 1965), one of Buster Keaton’s last appearances in a movie. I hadn’t seen the half-hour short since my brothers and I watched it as children, not long after it was released, in the old Victoria Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature) on McLeod Street in Ottawa. The small theatre’s setting made the film all the more memorable. The handsome sandstone building resembles a square castle complete with crenellated ramparts (Canada’s House of Commons moved into the museum for three years while the Centre Block of Parliament was being rebuilt after the fire of 1916). Buster Keaton, sporting his trademark pork pie hat, was an old man when he appeared in The Railrodder, essentially a travelogue showcasing Canada’s vast scenic beauty. I remember thinking that he looked like a cross between my two grandfathers. Uttering not a word, Keaton’s character rides a motorized rail cart all the way across the county, from the Maritimes westward. When Buster reaches the Pacific, an Asian man walks out of the ocean, steals the CN chariot and heads east. It was a vivid way to promote the young nation as it approached its Centennial celebration. A year and a half after the film was made, Keaton, silent-film-era genius, died of lung cancer.

In fluid, lucid, accessible prose, Bowling’s Heavy Bear tells us a lot about Buster Keaton. We learn about the comic actor’s beginnings in vaudeville as one of The Three Keatons, a family act starring him, his mother and his alcoholic, abusive father. Buster adopted his signature deadpan expression during this time, after his father noticed that the kid got more laughs from the audience when he didn’t smile or grimace. “Face! Face!” Keaton, Sr. would hiss after tossing his child across the stage as though the boy were a sack of rocks. Buster, who did all his own movie stunts, learned how to survive a fall while performing in vaudeville.

We find out that one of the grand Pantages Theatres once stood on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton, where this novel is set and where Bowling teaches English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Keaton and his close friend and colleague, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, probably came through Edmonton with their vaudeville tours in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, before moving on to New York and later Hollywood, redirecting their brand of physical comedy into the new medium of moving pictures.

“Tim Bowling,” the narrator and hero of The Heavy Bear, was a baby in 1964 when Buster Keaton and the crew filming The Railrodder passed through White Rock, B.C., near the salmon fishing town of Ladner, where Bowling’s family lived. As a child, Tim watched movies that a neighbour, a representative for Paramount Studios, projected onto the side of his house. It’s little wonder, then, that Tim Bowling the fictional character would share his creator’s love for all things cinematic. As he tells us early in the novel, his “entire childhood world was a Buster Keaton set, circa 1924.”

Like the author, Tim, the book’s narrator, is a poet and novelist who has enjoyed what passes for success in literary circles in Canada. That is, for thirteen years he was able to live and raise a family on what he made from his writing. Now, in 2012, the novel’s present, he has to augment his income by teaching basic writing skills—composition and grammar rather than the sexier creative writing—to first-year students at Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan University. Understandably he is less than enthusiastic about facing his first class again after a glorious summer of being able to write without the creativity killers that are lesson prep and assignment marking.

At least we assume that it’s been a good summer. He doesn’t tell us much about it or about his family. We know that he’s married and has three teenaged children, but we don’t learn much about them except that he loves them dearly and that his wife is “as resourceful a person in an emotional emergency as you could want.” They live in the desirable Mill Creek area of Edmonton’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood. Weather permitting during the school year, he rides his bicycle to work, across the vertiginous High Level Bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. He doesn’t own a car, we discover, and hasn’t driven one in years. The sessional teaching work pays him an outrageous pittance, hardly enough to live on, but he can’t afford to walk away from it.

What we do learn in copious detail—it takes more than sixty pages before anything resembling rising dramatic action takes place in this novel—are the facts of Buster Keaton’s life and work and, later, those of the brilliant New York poet, Delmore Schwartz. Matters take an unsettling turn when Keaton appears to Bowling in silent, ghostly guise, while Schwartz shows up in the form of a talking bear only Bowling can see and hear.

The “heavy bear” of the novel’s title is taken from the first line, which is also the title, of Delmore Schwartz’s most famous poem. It begins, “The heavy bear who goes with me, / A manifold honey to smear his face, / Clumsy and lumbering here and there, / The central ton of every place…”

Tim Bowling the fictional character—nearing 50, award-winning and prolific poet and novelist, reluctant college adjunct—is suffering a midlife crisis of an extreme and lumbering nature. He hasn’t been sleeping well. He’s lethargic, unmotivated. Creatively he is tapped out. Maybe it hasn’t been such a great summer, after all. Denizens of the afterlife have suddenly become his companions on the day he’s supposed to teach his first class of the new school year. Deciding he can’t face a room full of expectant faces, he goes to the lecture hall bent on cancelling the session, but one of his students, the attractive and indomitable Chelsea, is already there. Events spiral out of Professor Tim’s control.

At one point, as though they were fugitives outrunning the Keystone Kops, Tim and Chelsea speed away from trouble in her vintage, banana-yellow Ford Pinto. Curled across the backseat is the reincarnation of Delmore Schwartz, Ursus americanus, while stoic Buster Keaton in baggy pants and large-soled “slap shoes” stands upright, unperturbed, and unrestrained on the vehicle’s roof as the car weaves recklessly through traffic. It’s doubtful the author meant his story to devolve into a madcap Disney flick circa 1973, but it’s hard not to picture something starring Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, Gentle Ben, Cheetah the chimpanzee from Tarzan, and Uncle Charley from My Three Sons.

The discursive, information-rich sections of The Heavy Bear are so plentiful and the unlikely plot scenes so comparatively short that I wonder whether Tim Bowling initially set out to write a book of nonfiction about the early days of American film, a subject about which he is evidently passionate. The novel as an artistic form has continually strained against convention, reinventing itself so that, among others, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s series, My Struggle, and Rachel Cusk’s recent books, Transit and Outline, reveal genre-busting possibilities for the fiction of the personal and the actual. Whether or not readers of The Heavy Bear will have the patience for Professor Bowling’s lectures, engaging as they are, depends on the willingness of those readers to accept that for every event in fictional Tim’s life there is a corresponding fact drawn from the careers of his spirit guides, one a depressive, wisecracking, Jewish bear-poet, and the other a Buddha-like figure, sometimes old, at others young, silent but nevertheless always revelatory the way a good dancer can be.

At the heart of our hero’s dilemma is the age-old question every artist asks: How can I make my art and still eat? As he sees it, “One fact was clear enough: the more I taught the less I would write. And if I did not write, what would keep me out of a straitjacket? Yet what I wanted to write didn’t pay me enough to support a family of five.”

As existential crises go, this ranks relatively low on the severity scale, a tad too self-pitying to garner much sympathy. A writer finds a way to write; making a living usually involves doing something else. To his credit, Tim Bowling acknowledges that he may be chewing the scenery here, and imagines a less than sympathetic world responding, “‘Get a grip, pal, you hardly have problems—you have a job, shelter, enough to eat, a loving family. You’re damned lucky.’” Still, we have to accept that his crisis is uniquely his and that it is real. If not, his bizarre sojourn through downtown Edmonton means nothing. Drunk on the past and, for someone still relatively young, oddly resistant to technological change, he seems unable to process even the most mundane aspects of his present without submitting them to comparative analysis.

In short, the Tim Bowling of this novel suffers from a debilitating surfeit of thought. When Chelsea (an Emma Stone star-turn if ever there were one) suggests they get something to eat at New York Fries, where she works and enjoys an employee discount, the poor fellow can’t help himself. It’s as if he has lost the ability to filter the incidental and the trivial in his life from what is truly of consequence:

Why not? All the wild salmon in the stores come from China now, so I might as well eat fries from New York. At least New York was on this continent. Then again, the potatoes probably came from China. And they weren’t wild, either; they were also farmed.

Furthermore, perhaps to illustrate just how unsuited he is to the tedious job of teaching grammar, Tim lays the following cracked egg of an unattached participle: “Life is fragile for everyone, but at ninety every day is a tenuous bonus.” Conversely, amidst the plethora of cultural and literary references peppering the text, everything from Shakespeare to America’s Funniest Home Videos, come such felicitous phrases as, “the mercenary usher of the practical verities.” Or: “My father’s dead without a grave; who will give me back my hours of fiercest watching?” More like this, I found myself thinking. More poetry please!

Sometimes though a book is conceived of the best intention, it twists into something unpredicted and unruly. The Tinsmith (Brindle & Glass, 2012) is only one example proving that Tim Bowling can write an outstanding novel in which historical fact informs a compelling drama without interrupting the illusion of the fiction. While we should applaud its spirit and the sincere love it expresses for its subject matter, The Heavy Bear is one novel that got away from its creator, dashing confused and headlong into the thick woods of self-indulgence. Read it to learn about two fascinating artists, Buster Keaton and Delmore Schwartz, who coped each in his own way with the loss of brief artistic fame. Or, if you happen to be one of Professor Bowling’s film and literature students, read it as a primer to many of his varied enthusiasms. I can’t guarantee it, but you might even get an A in the course.

Wolsak and Wynn | 231 pages | $20.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-1-928088325

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Richard Cumyn

Richard Cumyn will publish his ninth book of short fiction, The Sign for Migrant Soul, with Enfield & Wizenty in the spring of 2018. He writes from Edmonton.