Quill & Quire
Trevor Cole’s refreshingly candid and complex portraits of contemporary masculinity have won a lot of praise and loyalty from a Canadian readership that, at least according to conventional publishing wisdom, prefers female-centric fiction. It’s true such novels often contain a male protagonist, but he is inevitably the type of reflective, moral, creative soul whose ethical tribulations make for good reading-club fodder.
Cole’s protagonists are neither particularly likeable nor admirable (they wouldn’t make good dinner guests), nor do they elicit easy sympathy from readers. They are largely defined by their obstinate rejection of the moral facts of life, preferring instead the comforts of lurid, ego-pleasing fantasies.
With Practical Jean, his third novel, Cole has turned his comic gifts to a female protagonist, one who embodies the traditionally feminine virtues of empathy, patience, selflessness, and practicality. By the novel’s end, however, Jean will have twisted those virtues into grotesque shapes that the charming lakeside town of Kotemee will never forget.
As the novel opens, “practical” Jean Horemarsh has put in countless hours living up to the cultural expectations assigned to her gender. The nurturing and patient wife of Milt, a good-natured but utterly useless supply teacher and general underachiever, Jean has lived a life of thankless service for as long as she can remember. Though chronically undervalued by her family, Jean doesn’t hesitate to surrender three interminable months to a crushing regime of home care during her mother’s protracted battle with cancer. When Jean returns home to her husband, she discovers a few cracks in the foundation of her plucky demeanour.
Jean’s only regret is that she didn’t suffocate her mother and save the dying woman a lot of useless agony. As she says to Milt, “You think about a lot of things when you’re taking care of your dying mother.” All that matters, Jean concludes, is to experience before death a “moment of beauty, or joy, something exquisite and pure.” Such a bizarrely romantic conclusion is in line with Jean’s underdeveloped non-practical side, normally expressed through her passion for making ceramic reproductions of plants and leaves (never flowers: too florid).
Back at the shop where she sells her creations, Jean cannot put the lessons of her mother’s death behind her. Watching a pair of spry elderly women browse the shelves, she tabulates the evidence of their diminished lives: “their limbs were stiff and sore, their eyes were weak, their skin had gone papery and lax, the internal systems of their bodies were no longer reliable.” Soon Jean is seeing the same forces at work on the bodies of her barely middle-aged friends: “Vicious, ruthless time was grinding away like a jackhammer, pulverizing bit by bit the foundations of their contentment.” It’s only a matter of time, she reasons, before her beloved friends end up as sick as her mother.
At this point, Jean’s practical and perversely romantic sides come together in a monstrous moment of revelation: “Death didn’t have to be slow and agonizing and bleak,” she concludes. Death can actually be a welcome gift delivered by a loving friend. And who better to deliver that gift than Jean? She resolves to kill her treasured friends, and to give each of them a “last moment of beauty” before the killing stroke.
Cole has great fun orchestrating the ensuing murders, in the process satirizing everything from small-town pieties to the latent competitiveness and jealousy that simmer beneath the compulsively affirmative surface of female friendship. Jean is as hopelessly narcissistic and aggressive as any of Cole’s male protagonists, but society’s double standards about female aggression force her to enact her rage in ways that parody the notion of feminine “niceness.”
The large cast of characters gives Cole ample opportunity to exercise his gift for comic portraiture. In one scene, an aging ex-boxer “bunche[s] up the heavy features of his face until they look like folds of pork”; in another, Jean responds to her brother’s observation that her sculpture, Mississippi Spleenwort, is “scary,” by snapping, “Well, it’s ferns. They’re prehistoric.” The sharp dialogue and even sharper character details ensure the novel’s intricately plotted scenes rarely lag.
Cole’s comic vision occasionally flags when sending up the mores of small-town Canada. A whiff of stale Leacock hangs over Kotemee’s too placid streets, and if it weren’t for the mention of cell phones and computers, a reader might forget what decade the story takes place in. The world has become a much uglier, less forgiving place since Leacock made his sunshine sketches of Mariposa, a fact not lost on the always practical Jean Horemarsh.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“Practical Jean should be a starred pick for every book club. . . . [A] biting and black comedy of middle-class mores gone murderously wrong [that] combines diamond-cut social satire with thoughtful contemplations of friendship’s burdens, meaning and purpose. . . . This wise and funny writer finishes off his latest novel with an epilogue whose closing words will leave you laughing (or shuddering and laughing) for days.”
— The Globe and Mail
“Funny and dark and occasionally surprising. . . . A darkly comic look at friendship and the sometimes dubious values of practical thinking.”
— Edmonton Journal
“Wickedly funny. . . . This has to be one of the darkest comedies written by a Canadian in my memory. Every page has a droll surprise, a laconic statement of absurdity, a deadpan wink at the world.”
— SunTimes (Owen Sound)
“A clever and timely novel with plenty of bite.”
— Telegraph Journal (St. John)
"[A] rare thing -- a novel that tackles a deep, dark philosophical question through seemingly banal events and leaves the reader pondering for days after reading the last page. . . . Thought-provoking."
— Vancouver Sun
"A deliciously dark comedy that feeds off our deepest, primordial fear . . . a mischievous, subversive tour-de-force."
— Kitchener Waterloo Record
"With his diabolical deadpan, Trevor Cole reminds us that literary fiction can be at once thoughtful, provocative, and blackly funny. Practical Jean is wicked smart fun."
– Annabel Lyon, author of The Golden Mean
"Practical Jean may be the blackest comedy ever written about the white middle class. Hilarious and heartbreaking, piquant and poignant, it’s a grim pleasure to watch Jean Vale Horemarsh abandon herself to brutal altruism and to the fatal redemption of her dearest friends. Trevor Cole has deeded us an outstanding novel and done, memorably, what no one else has yet managed: taken the too-touted quality of practicality by the scruff and given it a killing shake."
– Bill Richardson, author of Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast
"This wicked take on female friendship gives chilling new meaning to the phrase "tough love." Practical Jean is Trevor Cole at his satirical best."
— Lynn Coady, author of Mean Boy
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
TREVOR COLE is the author of two acclaimed previous novels, Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life and The Fearsome Particles, both of which were shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Trevor is also an award-winning magazine journalist.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The sun was shining on the whole of Kotemee. Spangles trembled on the lake, shafts of gleam stabbed off the chrome of cars lining Main Street, and in Corkin Park the members of the Star-Lookout Lions, Kotemee’s Pee Wee League team, swung aluminum bats that scalded their tender, eleven-year-old hands. But for Jean Vale Horemarsh, there was no light in her life but the light of her fridge, and it showed her things she did not want to see.
A jar of strawberry jam, empty but for the grouting of candied berry at the bottom. A half tub of sour cream, its contents upholstered in a thick aquamarine mould. A pasta sauce and a soup, stalking fermentation in their plastic containers. A crumpled paper bag of wizened, weightless mushrooms. The jellified remains of cucumber and the pockmarked corpses of zucchini and bell pepper in the bottom crisper drawer.
In the kitchen of her sun-warmed house on Edgeworth Street, Jean bent to the task of removing each of these abominations. The jam jar was tossed into the recycling bin. The putrid liquids were dumped into the sink. The zucchini, cucumber, and mushrooms became compost. The mould-stiffened sour cream would not budge from its tub, so Jean scooped it out with her hand. Anything suspect – a bit of improperly wrapped steak, a bottle of cloudy dressing – was presumed tainted and excised without mercy from the innards of the fridge. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and Jean still wore the black jacquard dress she’d worn to her mother’s funeral. She had not found the will to take it off, although she had undone several of the buttons. So as she worked, erasing the evidence of time, destroying all signs of decay, her dress hung open slightly, exposing the skin of her back to the refrigerated air.
Watching her from a corner of the kitchen, Milt, Jean’s husband, confessed that he should have cleaned out the fridge weeks ago, while Jean was still at her mother’s. But it was a revolting chore, he said, and he kept putting it off; he didn’t know how she did it.
“I have a strong stomach,” said Jean.
It had been three full months since Jean and Milt had lived together. Marjorie had made it clear that in dying she required Jean’s full attention, which left Milt to mind himself at home. Now, as Jean bowed and stared into the cool, white recess, he came up behind her. He reached over her for a jar of peanut butter and, with only a slight hesitation, touched his fingers to the unbuttoned region of his wife’s back and began to draw them lightly downward.
“What a terrible, terrible idea,” she said.
“Sorry.” He retreated with the peanut butter and screwed open the lid. “I just thought, we haven’t . . . I think it was snowing the last time. But you’re right, bad timing.” He set the jar and lid on the counter and reached for a bag of bread. “If you’re hungry, I could make you some toast.”
Jean straightened at the fridge, summoned tolerance and forgiveness, and gave her husband a sad, sheepish look. She folded her arms around him and set her chin on his shoulder. It was more a lean than a hug. “Poor Milty,” she said. “Poor, poor Milty.”
“Milty’s all right.”
“You can squeeze my breast if you want.”
“Nothing’s going to happen because of it. But you can do it if you like and then disappear into the bathroom or something.”
“Well, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Suit yourself.” She began to separate from him and before she did, he slipped a hand in and latched onto her left one, just holding it for a moment as she waited. “There,” she said finally, and patted his cheek as she left him.
“I could take it out right here,” he said from the kitchen.
He headed past her, toward the powder room in the hall. “It’s not like I haven’t.”
A few minutes later, slumped on the matching green velour living room chairs in a room invaded by the late-afternoon sun, they stared at Winter Leaves, which Milt had set on the coffee table in honour of Jean’s return. A clutch of hydrangea leaves ruined by frost it was meant to be.
“That looks nice there,” said Jean. “Thank you.”
“Thought you might like it.”
She pushed herself out of the soft cushions and leaned forward, squinting. “Is that a crack?”
“Just a small one. I glued it.”
“There’s another one.”
“Only two, though. Don’t keep looking.”
With a sigh Jean slumped back in her chair. “It is impossible for anything beautiful to last.”
“But you made something beautiful. That’s the point.”
Jean stared at Milt. “That is the point, isn’t it?”
She nodded and let her chin rest on her chest. Never had she been so exhausted, and yet so relieved. The exhaustion and relief seeped through her muscles and bones, a bad and good feeling all at once. This must be the way athletes feel, Jean thought, after they’ve run a thousand miles and won the game. She let the sensation slip through her like one of those drugs that young people take and allowed her mind to drift backward to the funeral at First United Presbyterian. Everyone had been there: Jean’s brothers, handsome so-and-so’s in their dress uniforms; Andrew Jr.’s silent wife, Celeste, and their two grown children, Ross and Marlee, sparing four precious hours away from their busy young lives, thank you so much for your sacrifice; her own good friends, most of them anyway, full of sympathy and support; and a hundred Kotemee folk who’d known Marjorie Horemarsh as the best veterinarian they’d ever brought a sick spaniel to, and not as a mother who’d praised only marks and commendations and money and prizes and never beauty . . . never, ever beauty for its own sake, and not as a patient who moaned in pain seventeen hours a day and smelled like throw-up and needed to be bathed and fed and have her putrid bedsores swabbed and dressed . . .
“It was nice to see your friends there,” said Milt. “Louise looked good, I thought. Or –”
“Louise looked good, did she?”
“Well. So did Dorothy. We should have them all over some day.”
Jean stared at the ceiling and sighed. “What’s the point, Milt?”
“The house has been pretty quiet. You could play bridge, like you used to.”
“No, Milt, I’m not talking about that. I’m saying what’s the point of anything?”
“Oh.” Milt tossed his head back against the chair cushion as if to say, Wow, that’s a big one.
“Exactly,” said Jean. “You know, you think about a lot of things when you’re taking care of your dying mother.”
Milt leaned forward in his chair. “Do you want a drink?” He rose and steadied himself. His tie was askew, and the end of it rested against the mound of his belly, a little like a dying leaf against a pumpkin, Jean considered.
“I will have some white wine.” She lifted her voice to talk as Milt made his way to the kitchen. “You think about things, Milt,” she said. “You ask yourself questions.”
“What sort of questions? No white, I’m afraid. Red?”
“Fine. Big questions, like, what’s the point of anything?”
“You live, and then you die, Milt. And whatever you had is gone and it doesn’t matter any more. Nothing matters for ever and ever.”
“Wow,” said Milt on his way back with the glasses.
“So what is the point?”
He handed her the wine. “You want me to answer that?”
“I don’t think you can answer that. I don’t think anyone can.”
“I think the point is to live the best life possible, for as long as you’re able.”
Jean, still sunk into the cushions and drugged with exhaustion, sipped her wine and picked at the threads of ideas and formulations and fantasies that had occupied her mind for the last couple of months, while she’d fed her mother unsweetened Pablum, while she’d stared at her thick, unweeded garden, while she’d kneeled alone in the en suite bathroom, cleaning the dried spray of urine from the floor where her mother had slipped.
“Beauty is the point, I think.”
“There you go. You answered it yourself.”
“A moment of beauty, or joy, something exquisite and pure.” She made a face. “I hate this red wine. Did you open it a week ago?”
“I’m not drinking it.” She set it on the coffee table. “That’s it for bad wine.”
“Did you want me to drive and get some white?”
“Yes, but not now. Not while we’re talking.” For a while she stared at the coffee table, at the wine yawing in the glass, at Winter Leaves, without really seeing any of them. “More than once, Milt,” she said. “More than once, when I was feeding Mom in bed? And she would lay her head back...