Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Compelling, but not as good as it should have been

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Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew

By Stuart Ross

ECW, 168 pages, $20

THIS tiny literary novel, the first for Ontarian Stuart Ross, explores how the historical trauma of the Holocaust has destroyed the normal processes of cultural memory.

It is tame compared to Ross's previous book, the 2009 short story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog. That's not to suggest that Ross, a well-known small-press editor and the author of several books (mostly poetry), hasn't produced a moving and funny novel.

It's just that he's not extending his talents to their limit.

The protagonist and narrator is a Toronto Jewish performance artist now entering his 40s. While reflecting on his life, Ben snags on a childhood memory, his terminally ill mother's assassination of a neo-Nazi leader.

As Ben circles this memory, attempting to square it with other memories of his mother and life, Ross presents his narrative in short, fragmentary chapters that often read like mini-stories, whose interconnections are more thematic than plot-based.

The assassination itself opens the novel. Unlike other poets-turned-novelists, Ross understands the power of both poetry and clear prose. The first sentence is a good example: "To its surprise, the bullet sailed out of the gun my mother clutched unsteadily in both hands, and a moment later the big man's yellow hard hat leapt from his thick head, into the air."

It's the bullet that's surprised, the hard hat that leaps -- the objects themselves, the whole world of the memory, taking on life. The child's perspective is tilted in, rather than poured, with "the big man" -- Ross resists the temptation to revel in the child's perspective through clunky, condescending stream-of-consciousness, the bane of lesser authors.

When Ross does inhabit the child's voice more fully, he manages it well. Pontificating upon a catfish, the child Ben notes its silent swishes through an ice-cream container: "That's what made it like a cat -- the silence and the whiskers."

At stake in Ross's story is not solving the mystery of whether or why Ben's mother killed the neo-Nazi, but how the trauma of the Holocaust is played out in the lives of those with generational ties to the tragedy.

Often, Ben returns to a memory not his own, but his mother's -- having snowballs hurled at her as a child because she was Jewish. "What were those snowballs thinking as they flew towards her little curly-haired Jewish head? Was this why their flakes had floated down from the sky like ashes?"

Ross's writing compels, but his story doesn't cohere or build, because the novel lacks shape. Its formal approach -- a story told in disjointed fragments of memory and dream -- is unmotivated.

Ben has a brother, Jake, who is unable to hold onto or summon his memories due to a medical condition. Instead, they surface with seeming randomness.

Why isn't Jake the main character, the one circling these memories and suffering their impositions, from his inability to truly recall, manage or lose them?

This shift would give Ross's structure more meaning and allow him to pace the novel to the rhythms of Jake's condition.

Jonathan Ball teaches English at the University of Winnipeg. He is the author of two poetry collections, the second, Clockfire, recently shortlisted for Manitoba's Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for poetry.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2011 J9

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