Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Fractured family trip rich in character
By Christine Pountney
McClelland & Stewart, 309 pages, $30
THE fractured Canadian family scrambling to mend itself on a road trip through our supersized southern neighbour is fertile literary territory, memorably explored four years ago by former Winnipegger Miriam Toews in The Flying Troutmans.
Standard devices of this literary niche include a cramped vehicle, travellers with well-tended grievances, and a dubious destination.
Now Christine Pountney, a Toronto writer whose previous novels are Last Chance Texaco and The Best Way You Know How, ventures down that road, propelled by a glowing pre-publication blurb from Toews.
She delivers a trip rich in character and incident.
Pountney generously devotes the first half of the novel to the pre-trip lives of the characters, slowly untangling their relationships.
When they hit the road the reader has made a substantial investment in their stories.
The travelling trio are Connie Foster, shocked by the bankruptcy of her husband's business; her sister Hannah Crowe, whose boyfriend refuses to father a baby; and Zeus (born Jesus) Ortega, their adopted and estranged younger brother.
Their mother, a bit scattered herself, persuades them that a nice family outing to the Kingdom of Salvation Center in Wichita, Kansas, is just the thing to resurrect their family connections.
The uncertainty and yearning of Pountney's main characters make them easy prey for this proposal. They have little faith in themselves.
At a small-city dinner Hannah, for example, is shocked at having to defend her big-city assumptions about the locals.
"If this party were bundled under furs, galloping across the Russian steppes in a horse-drawn sled, Hannah knew she'd be the first one thrown to the wolves. And this certainty made her dwell on all the things that set her apart, until she alighted on her own childlessness."
Connie, on the other hand, struggles to suppress her ecstasy after shocking herself during a church service by leaping from her seat and demanding that the Lord reveal himself to her.
"It feels very lonely to pretend when you're about to rip the pearls off your neck and smear your chest with gravel. But Connie just tilted her head like all the other mothers and made sympathetic small talk."
Sweet Jesus expertly evokes unusual settings, from a vacant home-security store on Vancouver Island to the Newfoundland bush during a caribou hunt. Most vivid is the palliative care ward of a children's hospital in Chicago, where Zeus works as a clown.
The novel's setting in the weeks before the 2008 election of Barack Obama as U.S. president allows the characters to indulge in polite but persistent Canadian disapproval of a variety of farther-out American attitudes to guns, abortion and multiculturalism.
Some of Pountney's shots at those wacky Americans are too predictable, though.
On the travellers' first night in a motel, where one discovers that "the beds are kind of gross," six police cars arrive to arrest a man fighting with a woman in a nearby room. The bad guy sports a blond mullet.
Roadside signs extol gun ownership, and a waitress wears "earrings made of a dangling cluster of red, white and blue stars." Of course she brings iced tea because the Canucks don't know they should order hot tea.
But -- praise the Lord -- this family's experiences at the Midwestern megachurch are more balanced.
Rather than mocking the religiosity and credulity of the worshippers, Pountney allows this searching family to find their own truths, even to reject those so urgently on offer.
These characters may not make it all the way to heaven but, O! Sweet Jesus! It's a lovely ride.
Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College. Follow him on Twitter @dmcmonagle.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 J9
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