Review by Frank Moher
Falling from Heights is the kind of novel that book reviewers live for (or at least this one does); ambitious, largely successful in its ambitions, engaging, and seeming to come out of nowhere.
In fact, it comes from a small publisher, Now or Never, in Delta, B.C. — but the book makes a pretty good case that Delta, like many suburbs, is as close to nowhere as one can get. Author Chris F. Needham paints it as the sort of spiritually blank landscape that Kevin Smith’s New Jerseyites would find familiar, but in language so gorgeous it’d give Silent Bob the heebie-jeebies. It is, his narrator tells us, “a hodgepodge of aging, oddly homogenous homes connected one to the others via the elevated arteries of power lines and the underground gossip and general malaise of their inhabitants.”
Just who the narrator is turns out to be one of the novel’s many splendid involutions — suffice it to say that he’s about as unreliable as unreliable narrators get. As Falling from Heights opens, its moody central character, Jeremy, has returned home from a failed bid at a writing career in Toronto. He thinks he’s back for his brother’s funeral; the fact that his brother turns out to be robustly alive, and more out-of-control than ever, only increases his conviction that he was right to leave in the first place. Meanwhile, in alternating sequences, we read the 30-year old letters home of a young woman, Birdie Cormack, involved in a Toronto study on the effects of marijuana. Both are stuck in place: Birdie literally, at the hospital where the study takes place, Jeremy in a family (including another brother permanently incarcerated as a sex predator and described as “sort of a cross between Rainman and Hannibal Lecter”) that is nearly hallucinatory in its determined dysfunction.
Again, what the two stories have to do with each other becomes clear only gradually. Meantime, we are treated to Needham’s keen, voluptuously-rendered account of what it is to be young, self-aware, and out of prospects, not to mention some mordantly funny cameos. One, of a boozy, grandiloquent actor apparently based on transplanted Vancouverite Michael Moriarty, eschews cheap shots in favour of something more like sympathy; by the novel’s end, “Calvin Cassidy” is just another of the flotsam washed-up in his favourite bar. The other is an indirect appearance by a successful author named Ferguson Henry, whose career is strangely analogous with real-life author Will Ferguson, and who functions as a billyclub for Jeremy’s agent to beat him with.
This leads, as Jeremy leaves his agent’s office, to another of the novel’s mellifluous riffs on the intersection of soul and city: “With the summer sun out and the distant blue mountains sharply defined against a brighter blue sky, Jeremy was treated to an obscure run of third class, twenty-dollar hookers and their hazy, heroin-addicted associates, each of which, as Jeremy passed, measured him with a shrewd ironic eye worthy perhaps of the talented and prolific, yet domestically misunderstood, Ferguson Henry himself.”
Falling from Heights could be less discursive; the connections made and secrets revealed at the end don’t quite justify its length. But a novel this rewarding and sophisticated deserves a lot more attention than it’s received so far. Reading it is like coming across a great restaurant in a suburban strip mall; you’re delighted both by the experience and the fact that later you’ll be able to tell others about it.
Consider yourself told.