Review of Home Movies by Ray Robertson
September 7, 1999
This article originally appeared in Paragraph Magazine (Toronto) in December of 1997. The author retains all rights.
James Thompson is Canada’s Buck Owens, a soon-to-be 25 year old country-and-western singer who’s never seen a cow or ridden a horse. His two albums of songs have adequately described the small town Canadian experience, despite James’ having established his abode within the urban frenzy of downtown Toronto. But now James is unable to find words to go with the music for his next album, and so, compelled by his bellicose boss, he returns home to “find his roots.”
Home is Datum (perhaps a thinly veiled Chatham, the author’s home town), Ontario, a place comedically unimpressed with James’ unintentional big city ways, but an appropriate setting for a small mystery than pervades the narrative: who exactly was James’ father? The elder Thompson had died on his wedding night, and James had never known him. James relatives had been frustratingly reluctant to talk about the family’s history, but his Uncle Buckly had promised that he would reveal all on James’ upcoming 25th birthday.
As a first novel, Home Movies is reasonably well written with small town and C&W metaphors aplenty. But for the stickly grammatician, it suffers from an overabundance of parentheses, clauses and very long sentences. Often, this style is humourous and cute, a la Douglas Addams, but ocassionally inappropriate in scenes that could benefit from a thicker air of seriousness and punctuated events. Make no doubt, however, that Robertson weilds an effluent wit that is exercised frequently and effectively:
James tried on a smile that would have made a good before-photo for a laxative product.
Home Movies is intended to showcase the Ontario border-town experience, yet its descriptions of Toronto linger more strikingly in the reader’s memory. Like Russel Smith, Robertson splatters his novel with casual veiled references to cool Toronto niches: “The Holy Ravioli” (The Rivoli) and “Spooky Doo’s” (Sneaky Dee’s), for example. Datum, Ontario, only comes alive during James’ recollections of youth, often brilliantly accentuated by hockey metaphors that push pure Canadiana through the haze of an intended American readership.
Robertson has given great thought to his supporting cast of characters, especially to their roles within this hockey-playing milieu. Most important are Uncle Buckly and James’ new crazy girlfriend Melissa. These are sympathetic and engaging individuals, but sadly rarely evolve beyond their superficial traits and quirks. Characters, in general, are described more than they do. With the exception of Melissa, they are introduced in James’ rich recollections of histories and eccentricities, then are asked to perform in this biased arena. Most disappointing is Uncle Buckly to whom entire chapters of description are dedicated, who rarely actually says anything.
Sadly, Robertson’s considerable talent with situational description and clausal structure have not yet translated well into dialogue. Much thought, or perhaps a greater emotional investment, has been put into the main characters’ speech. But supporting agents suffer from forgettable cliches, such as this line from a bartender:
"I figured I'd be seeing their ugly mugs around here once the bars closed down."
Has anyone since Bogart used the words “ugly mugs”?
Admittedly, the second half of the book enjoys both greater maturity of character portrayal, and a higher degree of action rather than dialogue. The culmination of the carefully cultivated mystery of James’ father’s life is unfortunately disappointing, but serves to accentuate the greater importance of James’ return to Datum.
As a first-time novelist, Ray Robertson shows true talent crafting sentences, situations and interactions. His future works, if characters are allowed to ripen, and if separate moods can be sustained without the need for humourous undercutting, are sure to be impressive indeed.