1657 Unresolved in Weyburn
Darkness at the Edge of Town
by Stan Rogal
Montreal: Guernica Editions, 2022
$20.00 / 9781771836975
Reviewed by Bill Paul
Taking place in the town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Stan Rogal’s Darkness at the Edge of Town follows the psycho-sexual odyssey of young man in his late twenties, a misfit and hell-raiser named Ray. The plot is structured as a prodigal son’s quest for knowledge. A stagy, prairie fable about a troubled family.
After an absence of seven years (“like in the fairy tales’’) Ray returns to his home town, riding straight up Government Road on a “classic souped up cherry red Triumph motorcycle,” and for the townspeople “it was like they’d witnessed the figure of Jesus Christ, or the holy Virgin Mary burn itself into the blue brick wall of a Walmart store.”
For years Ray’s been besieged by nightmares that may have “something to do” with Weyburn. His brother Ben, his best friend and confidant, is also a policeman. A solid citizen, Ben is married and owns a home in Weyburn “on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac.” He has two children and lives with his wife, Beth (a former girlfriend of Ray).
Ray and Ben’s mother is deceased. She was “part white, part Cree … pregnant at sixteen.. followed by a complete mental breakdown” which saw her committed to the Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital. Ray and Ben’s father, a lonely man who lives in “run-down shack,” once worked at the hospital. Then there’s Ray’s grandmother, who suffered an addiction to unauthorised drugs from the hospital pharmacy. A shroud of darkness hangs over Ray and his family.
The Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital is in fact a part of Weyburn’s local history. It was built in on the outskirts of town in 1920 and in 1954 the public hospital experimented with drug-therapy (lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD) as a treatment for alcoholism. As well, doctors and nurses were given psychedelic drugs in the hope that staff would better understand their patients who were suffering from delusions.
The main storyline in the novel concerns Ray’s quest to unravel the mystery that has “something to do with (his) mother … something still unresolved” that occurred when she was a patient at the Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital. Or as Ray’s father puts it, “there were lots of stories…. Relations between patients and staff. And doctors…. There was always something.” The hospital, now torn down, is “filled with unexplained sounds and shadows.”
A second storyline follows Ray’s misadventures with family, friends and strangers. Ray’s father is in dire straits living under an “aura of secrecy.” When Ray visits him, he pleads with Ray to kill him, but Ray refuses. At the Detour Bar and Grill, Ray befriends a young man who dies unexpectedly after falling off a roof. Later Ray visits a former girlfriend named Suze and apologises for acting like a coward “those years ago.”
Two chapters later, drinking at the same bar with the “regular crowd,” Ray gets into a fight with Donnie, Suze’s truck driver husband. For Ray the fight is a milestone, an initiation, part of his quest to understand himself: “Thanks Donnie! Thank you. I can relax for a while. Get my head clear. Think about other things. It’s all good.”
Ray’s search to understand his family’s mental health history is told in episodic fashion. With the help of Indigenous Shaman-like figures and the use of hallucinatory drugs, Ray has a series of cathartic experiences (or not). Rogal sends the reader on several wild goose chases and down a few rabbit holes. Did Ray just have this experience as described in the book or are they part of a drug-fuelled sexual fantasy?
Rogal likes to play with different literary genres. Much of the plot’s development is stitched together by pulp fiction and horror story clichés (the misunderstood outcast, one-dimensional women characters, fatalistic dialogue, a haunted, abandoned building site, disembodied spirits). After Ray’s fight with Donnie he leaves the pub and rides his motorcycle outside of Weyburn for a rendezvous with an Indigenous woman named Tantoo whom he’s befriended.
Here’s Rogal description of Ray’s encounter with Tantoo:
The bonfire is ablaze when Ray reaches the camper trailer. He hits the brakes; the bike’s rear tire skids forward and he donuts to a stop. There’s a bulging yellow moon. Beneath it, within the glow, he sees Tantoo. She’s dressed in full ceremonial garb, replete with feathered headdress….
She dances around the flames, alternately howling and chanting at whatever gods might be listening. In the distant hills, coyotes and wolves yip and yowl along with her. Ray staggers over to greet her…. She swipes at the caking blood over his eye with a thumb, contents herself there’s no real serious damage and offers him the pipe.
He inhales several puffs in rapid succession. He tosses his head and lets it rip, a wailful howl at the sky. Tantoo returns to her dance and describes some type of magic symbols in the air with her bent fingers.
Is Ray a Trickster from Indigenous Literature or a figure from Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythology? Will Ray’s suffering exorcise the suffering his mother and grandmother experienced at the hospital? Are the characterisations in the novel stereotyped because what we’re reading is a fable? Is Rogal trying to write his version of the traditional family-drama prairie novel, as he suggested in a 2015 interview with Touch the Donkey. When asked what he was working on, Rogal replied:
Currently I’m trying to complete a novel. It’s meant to be my vitriolic response to all those “growing up Mennonite on the Prairies/ mother dying of cancer” sentimental stories that generally grab all the media attention, grant money and awards in this country.
At the beginning of the book, Rogal points out that the story takes place in the summer of 2017. Yet the story and the characters feel dated, old-fashioned. And for this reader, parts of the story read like unnecessary voyeurism. For example, a chapter near the end of the books starts out with Ray and Ben out fishing in a rowboat; two brothers, who are worlds apart, talking about old times.
The chapter ends with Beth, Ben’s wife, getting raped in her own home by a “blurry haloed silhouette of a figure standing motionless in the garage entrance.” The scene as it’s written is incongruous, random and disruptive to read. I found it logically and emotionally unrelated to the plot.
Most of the plotting in Darkness at the Edge of Town feels contrived and artificial. The writing is unpersuasive and has a forced quality about it. The characters’ actions don’t seem convincing. Ray’s struggles are overwrought and the reader soon loses interest in his efforts to set things right, find some kind of peace for himself. Small problems add up and make it hard to engage with the story that Rogal is trying to tell.
East Vancouverite Bill Paul enjoys photography and reading fiction and non-fiction. Editor’s note: Bill Paul has also reviewed books by Keath Fraser and John Farrow, and contributed a photo-essay, Trevor Martin’s Vancouver, to The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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