Review by Frank Moher
What exactly does the disclaimer inside the cover of Chris F. Needham’s new novel, Leaving Lovestiff Annie, mean? “Any resemblance to actual persons living, dead, or residing in White Rock is entirely coincidental,” it reads.
Does this suggest that the retiree/resort community just south of Vancouver is some sort of waystation between here and the afterlife — a sort of purgatory on the Pacific? Can it be that its residents, despite what they may suppose, are only halfway to paradise? Certainly the central character in this arresting, unabashedly romantic book exists in a sort of dream-state poised, torturously, between the man he might be and the horndog he actually is.
He is one Chris Needham, who, besides sharing a name with the author, shares his intimate knowledge of west coast manners — specifically, the hedonistic ways of the locals. Chris manages a struggling beachside restaurant, while maintaining a busy erotic life with, in no particular order, Wendy, Katie, and Krishna. (Did I miss anyone?) Meanwhile, his wife battles cancer at home, and he’s in hock to a drug dealer affiliated with the Hells Angels. I won’t mention the part about the threesomes at his boss’s mansion.
Doesn’t sound romantic? Needham’s particular genius, here as in his 2007 novel, Falling from Heights, is to make us sympathize with men who, by any rights, we should dismiss as cads and deadbeats. As his story unfolds over three-and-a-half days, we learn that Chris’s wife may or may not have already passed on, and his behaviour may or may not be a form of grieving. (Clarity isn’t always Leaving Lovestiff Annie’s strong-suit, purposely or otherwise.) And he suffers for his sins: headaches, diarrhea, a beating at the hands of a cuckolded husband. The latter may even have been solicited as an attempt at self-punishment or, more darkly, suicide. “So you tried to kill yourself again, did you,” says Katie, the most serious of his attachments. “Well swing for the fences, kid.”
Needham also manages to elevate the other Needham’s adventures with some of the most luscious language to be found in a Canadian novel in years. This is a writer besotted with words — which you might think would be a natural thing in a writer, but which hasn’t been among Canadian ones since Margaret Atwood made everyone ashamed of adjectival prose. “In the cold night air I feel the heavy, wet cumbersome flakes form over my upturned face a heavy, wet, cumbersome veil,” Needham writes, as Chris exits yet another rendezvous. “I swear I can feel each flake separately as it lodges itself in amongst my lashes and melts gradually, almost grudgingly, into the creeks and crevices below. Slowly the troughs of eyes and mouth fill in, in my mind growing smoothly level with the crests of brows, cheeks and chin, and I amuse myself with the notion that if I were to somehow remain this way too long I might actually drown in a way.”
Eventually Chris becomes embroiled in a scheme to bring some contraband booze across the nearby American border. Even here, he’s somehow the victim, acting at the behest of his incompetent employers, who hope to drum up business by selling cheap drinks. The escapade, assisted by a boozy writer and using a movie actor’s boat, gives Needham a chance to exercise his gift for sharp, comic characterizations, which chimerically combine satire with deep sympathy. (His portrait of the troubled actor Michael Moriarty, disguised as “Calvin Cassidy” in Falling from Heights, was one of that novel’s highlights.) When the plan fails, Chris finally gets the kick he needs to get his life together, romantically and otherwise, and one last gesture dramatically wipes away all those may-or-may-nots.
I’m not sure Leaving Lovestiff Annie, with its shifts of point-of-view and intermingling of past and present, has to be as confusing as it sometimes is. (The author might prefer the word “ambiguous.”) Needham the writer is as stylistically adventuresome as his alter-ego is in playing the field, with the same mixed results. But his book is worth the second reading I had to give it to make sure I knew what was going on (no guarantees implied). Serious-minded, even when its characters are at their most brainless, and seriously entertaining, it gets at the pain beneath male ennui as well as any book I’ve read since Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. The jury may still be out on Chris Needham, aging slacker. But with this affecting novel, Chris F. Needham, no slacker he, takes his place alongside the best young talents writing in this country.
First published in The National Post.