FISHING FOR BACON
By Michael Davie
234 pages, $22.95
Review by Frank Moher
Coming-of-age novels are a lot like podcasts: there are too many of them, everyone thinks they can make one, and not everyone is right. They’re also like Twitter messages, predicated as they are on the assumption that just because an experience is universal — bad sex, say, or eating lunch — it must perforce be interesting.
Negative. About the time I stopped listening to Dawn and Drew, two podcast pioneers who somehow convinced hundreds of thousands of listeners (okay, thousands) that their domestic lives were fascinating, I also started avoiding books with words like “awakening” and “quickening” on the cover. Unfortunately, that was also about the time I signed up for Twitter. The bores are always with us.
Fishing for Bacon, however, by Calgary author Michael Davie, is a coming-of age novel of a different sort. First off, its hero, Bacon Sobelowski, is too soft-headed ever to experience an awakening, much less a quickening. Second off, it hasn’t a sensitive bone in its body. Where classics of the genre such as Who Has Seen the Wind? and A Separate Peace treat their protagonists as Faberge eggs to be bubble-wrapped and handled with care, Davie’s exuberant, insistently inventive novel rains all sorts of outrages down upon its, as if to see how quickly he can be broken.
Bacon hails from a town in Alberta’s southerly Crowsnest Pass, where only sharp winds and occasional busloads of Japanese tourists visit. The book’s early pages aren’t promising; the usual small-burg angst prevails, and a stock feisty grandma doesn’t help. Bacon loses his virginity to the other odd duck in school, Sara Mulligan, a teenage battleaxe written with enough brio to suggest Davie hasn’t yet shown his hand. Still, you wonder what could possibly follow; 30 pages in, Fishing for Bacon has exhausted most of the tropes of the form.
What follows is a sudden burst of comic energy that, like a field of canola on the prairie, just goes on and on. Bacon pursues Sara to Calgary, where his first mistake is to repair to a bar rather like the one Ralph Klein used to hang out in. He meets an inordinately friendly young woman who takes a curiously overstated interest in his future. Why, she even offers him a high-end condo to stay in, and stays in it with him. Yeehaw.
It’s fun to see Calgary reinvented as the big, bad city. It’s also fun to watch Davie, whose first novel this is, exercise a love of the unlikely that boots him out of the predictable and into fresher and much suppler territory. Bacon is introduced to his mentor’s unexpected husband, who genially demands payment for her services. Meanwhile, back on the home front (conveniently just a few hours away by Greyhound bus), he falls for a recent arrival from Korea who insists that her English name should be Meryl Streep. “Meryl Streep’s bra remained firm,” Bacon tells us, recounting yet another sexual interlude that puts the “coming” in “coming-of-age,” “so I reached both hands around behind her, feeling about for some kind of clasp, a button or Velcro. Again she spoke to me in Korean. Again I reached for the dictionary, a difficult stretch while keeping my closed mouth to hers.”
Bacon’s erotic accidents eventually force him to flee to Waterton National Park, sort of the poor cousin to Banff and Jasper, where he finds employment as a dishwasher. Here he finally catches a break, in the form of a fellow lodge employee, Woodrat. (Davie, a graduate of the University of Lethbridge, also apparently studied at the John Irving Academy of Whimsical Character Names.) Woodrat is female, but, surprisingly, contact with her does not immediately lead to disaster. Fishing for Bacon aims itself towards a moment of transcendence in the river, as Bacon catches a big rainbow trout that somehow represents something (and once again evokes various previous novels). But its real endpoint is a poignant scene in which Bacon and Woodrat masturbate themselves, side-by-side, prolonging their last night together as best they can. Sex ceases to be a laughing point, and Fishing for Bacon becomes wholly original.
In other words, this eager-to-please, somewhat chaotic novel offers a chance to watch a talented new comic author write himself into being. I also liked its unhip denouement; Bacon rejects the bright lights of Calgary for something nearer his heart. In that, in Davie’s embrace of the tall-tale, and, yes, in starting his career with the saga of a young man’s stirring to something more than animal instincts, he has placed himself squarely in the tradition of various classic prairie writers. If he can keep from being overawed by them, he might just prove a worthy successor.
First published in The National Post