My fingers were tightly crossed that this years Governor Generals jury for non-fiction would show at least a little of the literary taste and sense of adventure of the Fiction crew and nominate either Eric Millers The Reservoir or Darren Greers Strange Ghosts (preferably both): they deserve far wider readership and greater critical acclaim than collections of literary essays generally find in this country. Canadian writers should not have to recast the truth of their lives into short stories to find an audience beyond family, friends, and former students.
Theres another award for which Id nominate Darren Greer: a Best Second Novel Award for Still Life with June (2003)-arguably the best second effort in Canadian fiction since Barbara Gowdys Falling Angels (1989). Like Gowdy, Greer has a remarkable capacity for creating hilarious, redemptive tales filled with seemingly lost, out-of-kilter characters whose lives are peculiarly saturated with paradises fleetingly glimpsed. Like Gowdy, Greer wants his readers to contemplate possibilities of humanity flourishing in the most improbable situations. Still Life with June focused on an aspiring writers life at the Sally Ann Cocaine Corral-a shelter for former drug addicts, alcoholics and criminals in an Ottawa wracked and wrecked by corporate greed and haunted by AIDS. The best of the sixteen essays in Strange Ghosts speak publicly about private matters hinted at in the fiction. Like Cameron, his fictional protagonist, Darren Greer is gay, HIV-positive, and intimately acquainted with drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, but hes also one of the most joyously alive, vibrant young writers in the country. He positively exults in his craft. And craftiness. A compulsively readable and appealing mixture of memoir, travelogue, polemics, politics, and aesthetics, Strange Ghosts covers a lot of ground: geographical (Paris, Baghdad, Venice, Bangkok, New York, Ottawa, Toronto, Greenfield, Nova Scotia); artistic (Tennessee Williamss novel Moise and the World, the death portrait of Felix Partz of General Idea, Marcel Duchamp, Oscar Wilde, his own novels and plays); and emotional (growing up gay in rural Nova Scotia with a non-accepting father, dealing with addictions, coping with being HIV-positive, bonding with cats, dogs, lovers, baseball fans ). When Greer is writing at the height of his skill-as in Remembering Felix Partz-he is utterly stunning.
I chose to stay in treatment, despite the HIV diagnosis. A few weeks later I found myself, on a Sunday afternoon, in the National Gallery of Canada once again, looking at one particular exhibit. That was the year Felix Partz and the Canadian art-making team General Idea placed three gigantic AZT capsules on the floor of one room of the gallery. On the walls of the room were glued smaller replicas of the capsules-they were about the size of footballs, dissected and arranged in the pattern of days in the month on a calendrical page-one page of capsules for each month of the year. There had been some public furor about the cost of this exhibit. I agreed the first time I saw it. I might have been gay, but I didnt think much about AIDS then. Half a million dollars for this? This time, however, things were different. My doctor had started me on a regimen of AZT. I stood in that room of giant capsules and cried. I got it. Boy, did I get it. Modern art had spoken to me, in an awfully narrow, shared band of experience-not one that everyone would want to share.
Its never quite clear where the next paragraph will take you, who you will meet, and what youll discover about his world and your own. Not everything is equally well-observed (some of the travel pieces try too hard to be commercial and lapse into Saturday newspaper supplement conventionality) but Greers remarkably in touch with himself and truthful about the people in his life and the artworks he feels offer redemption. And hes smart enough to know when to be ironic and when to play it straight.
T. F. Rigelhof (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
Darren Greer grew up in several towns in Nova Scotia, including Greenfield and Liverpool. He studied literature at the University of King¹s College, Halifax, as well as Carleton University, Ottawa. His first novel, Tyler¹s Cape, was published in March 2001 to critical acclaim and was on the bestseller list of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. Still Life with June was nominated for the Pearson Readers' Choice Award at The Word On The Street, Toronto, in 2003 and is the Winner of the 2004 ReLit Award.