1846 An ‘honest expression of humility and truth’
The Life of Gronsky
By Bill Engleson
Victoria BC: Tellwell Talent, 2023
$26.95 / 0228888417
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
What does it mean to understand a life? Any novelist brave enough to attempt to distil a character’s life might think of Laurence Sterne’s monumental and classic Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, possibly the hugely popular Life of Pi by Yann Martel, or else the movingly provocative Life and Times of Michael K by celebrated South African novelist J.M. Coetzee. Added to these now is The Life of Gronsky by Denman Island writer Bill Engleson.
Like the others in this group, Gronsky has an uncommon, even oddball name: a title like The Life of Williams, say, would fall colossally flat. In some ways, Gilbert Gronsky, however, in spite of his name, could hardly be more “common”— at least within the ranks of aging Canadian males of ordinary incomes, ordinary interests, and unremarkable lives. Retired after working in a paper mill, Gronsky has never travelled outside North America, resides in a house with two rental suites, and spends many of his hours watching TV sports. Bravely, the author insists that his protagonist is deeply unremarkable: Gronksy, it seems, “was not an adventurous man.” He is, likewise, quiet, even withdrawn: he “wished he had the courage to be public about the world’s ills.” In fact, for his whole life he has been passive, having “allowed the past to direct him.”
Even so, the novelist has made his protagonist as distinctive as his name, and, arguably, as his literary forebears.
First off, Engleson’s novel could well be called, like Coetzee’s, “the life and times,” or, like Sterne’s, “the life and opinions,” since Engleson makes his protagonist’s life inseparable from his times and his opinions. Second, Engleson has Gronsky decide to write fiction for two contests. This man’s largely uneventful life is counterbalanced by a sizzlingly eventful pair of storylines. Doubtless, part of the wicked charm of the book for many readers will be the guilty pleasure of reading two suspenseful yarns even while engaging with a framing novel in which the author has a steady hand on stirring the pot of broad-reaching personal and social issues. And, arguably, the way Gronsky thinks about the process of writing provides as much spark as the hair-raising events that charge his stories.
Third, and most important, while most of the course of Gronsky’s life is scant, as Engleson makes clear, a “life” is less the sequence of events that span the decades than the very texture and colour of his daily existence. This is less the entirety of Gronsky’s life than its essence.
Enter three other characters: Miriam, Sam (both Gronsky’s tenants) and, out of the blue, Anthea. Each functions as a sight line triangulating on and illuminating the protagonist. Deeply fond of Miriam and Sam, Gronsky suddenly finds his life enlivened by the appearance of a stray girl who turns out to be none other than his granddaughter, a granddaughter no less he believed—like his wife, son and daughter—to have been lost forever. Is it a “miracle of reunion? If it was a miracle. If it was a true reunion.” The ordinary is suddenly, in a limited but important way, extraordinary.
To push the novel forward, Engleson employs several lines of uncertainty connected with each of these three main streams. Most basic are the uncertainties connected with the narratives Gronsky is writing, not just the “thriller” elements, but also the anxiety arising from the need to write towards the contest deadlines. More important, the uncertainty connected with the degrees to which and ways in which Gronksy will integrate into his life Miriam and his newfound granddaughter is paralleled by even greater uncertainty and anxiety surrounding Sam. A development worker, Sam goes to Haiti and disappears. The subsequent worries, compounded by worries over Sam’s attempts track down Gronsky’s son, permeate much of the later part of the novel.
An entirely different kind of anxiety gives a striking dimension to much of the novel—the anxiety induced by world events. The protagonist’s responses to the news, in Engleson’s hands, becomes the filter through which the ills of the world—the many, many ills—give depth and resonance to even his most mundane daily routines:
“It was always his compulsion to watch the morning news, to adjudicate for himself precisely where the world was, where he was in relation to the state of the globe. He realized he was just one man, one now aging man, and his existence meant so little to the survival of mankind, the joys, the pleasures of the planet.”
The range and immediacy of painful current events that are interlaced with the story of a single “aging man” are astounding. From a bus crash in Bulgaria, through the tragedy of Indigenous people; from the firing of Chief Health Officer Dr. Fiscus in Tennessee, to social collapse in Haiti and much, much more, Engleson documents what Gronsky calls the world’s “near irredeemable pain.”
It is hard not to feel that Gronsky’s distress is the author’s, his take on the world given real moral authority by Gronsky’s deeply rooted humanity. At some points (with almost debilitating empathy), he merely absorbs the pain: the story of the dying De Klerk’s apology for apartheid makes “his heart sink”; another story “was even more wrenching: the Canadian Government urging Canadians to get out of Haiti.” The emerging revelations about residential schools is “enough to make…[him] weep.” Seeing homeless people in his own neighbourhood, he falls into depression.
More than purely emotional, however, his responses are inflected with strongly-held “opinions.” At one point, he darkly asserts, “It was incumbent on the billions of people like Gronsky who didn’t really need to travel by air to stay firmly earthbound.” Similarly, on considering anti-vaccination drives in a world riddled with COVID-19, he inveighs against “ugly forces of selfish political opportunism and the fragmented notions of freedom.” And it isn’t just Americans he condemns: “Canadians were a spoiled people, entitled to so much freedom that their understanding of social responsibility and their individual responsibility was not always in the forefront.” Even his fictional narrators show strong social values within their time frame: one, praising Tommy Douglas, decides firmly, “he would support a party that was there for the little guy.”
One of the most compelling strategies that the author employs is to give probably the most powerful driver of all world problems to climate change. Ingeniously, for a major sequence of the novel, the author counterpoints his protagonist’s daily output of fiction with the concurrent process of “COP 26,” the results of which “would tell everyone what the future of everyone on the earth might be”. Particularly arresting is his decision subsequently to give immediacy to two specific climate disasters—one the local devastating floods of 1946 embedded in the end of his novella, the other the similarly devastating local floods of 2021 documented near the conclusion of Gronsky’s “life.” The point is clear: in fiction, as in the meta-fiction embracing them both, humanity cannot escape what Gronsky calls “the punishing rage of nature.”
The convergence of these two levels of fictional reality is not coincidental. Indeed, it becomes one of the hallmarks of the book that life—not just Gronsky’s life—and fiction interpenetrate. As if signalling to his readers this connection, Engleson has Gronsky repeatedly make such claims as, “He was now convinced that writing and life were inseparable.” The self-referential irony is pointed. Playfully, the novelist at one point even plots the eye-popping coincidence that Claudette, the name he gives to one of his (duplicitous) women characters turns out to be the name Engleson gives to Gronsky’s (duplicitous) ex-wife.
This view on the connection between his fiction and life is paralleled by Gronksy’s other strongly felt views on the nature of writing, his writing. Especially engaging is the humility that Engleson emphasizes: “I am no Marcel Proust, no Victor Hugo…. I know my limits,” he thinks, the thought underlined by the author himself: “it was an honest expression of humility and truth….” Repeatedly, Gronsky struggles to write, occasionally satisfied, even exhilarated with what he is accomplishing, but also subject to fits of what he calls at one point “writer’s malaise,” and, at others, “creative exhaustion,” and even “creative torture.”
Why, then, does Gronsky write? Just as he struggles to keep going, so he underscores the importance of what he is doing. Early on, “he believed he was capturing some relevant truths. Universal truths.” As his novella develops he deepens his conviction: “In the long run, literature did have value so it was up to him to write something meaningful.”
Yet he abandons his writer’s ego in a flash when faced with a real life crisis: his good friend Sam, finally free from a dangerous situation in Haiti, provokes him to become “aware that his writing project was nothing more than a frivolity.” Nothing more than a frivolity? Surely not, most readers by now will have come to feel. And this in spite of the fact that Engleson’s fiction about Gronksy’s fiction, like Gronsky’s fiction, is almost wickedly, audaciously “frivolous”—and, frivolous in three key ways.
First, any reader would be hard pressed to find any other novel in which so much is given to two utterly background, mundane interests—television sports on the one hand, and, on the other, food. Yes, food. Not only does Engleson dish up meal after meal after meal (there are dozens and dozens), but he does so with engaging directness, imagination, and, at times, fascinating detail—even when there is nothing but porridge and coffee on the menu.
Even more audacious is the way Engleson documents tennis match after tennis match in dizzying detail. Consider the following: “While Hurkacz was down 4 to 1 early on, re rebounded to 4-4. Then Djokovic served well to make it 5-4.” Then “Hurkacz evened the match at 5-5.” And so on.
Finally, still more “frivolous,” on the surface at least, are the two works of fiction reproduced word for word as the bulk of this fiction-about-fiction. Both the short story, “The Last Breath,” and the short novel, Scratch an Old Wound are noir thrillers. Even given the fact that the noir genre is often well-respected, there is no question that Engleson delights in playing with the tropes and mannerisms.
The two narratives have a lot in common: a (male) private detective has to elude the wiles of femmes fatales and the nefarious doings of their thuggish accomplices while carrying out his furtive mission. Stylistically, “The Last Breath,” though it is contemporary down to including pandemic details, uses even more noir stylistic inflections; Scratch an Old Wound conforms in broad outlines almost exactly to the genre: the hero, returned from war, is afflicted by an “old wound” and immersed in an unsavoury world of crime and deceit: “[Danny] had no qualms about suckers losing their milk money. ‘That’s what the fucking war was about,’ he told Monique one night when he was heavily into gin and tonic, and she was in a mood to tolerate it.” Here, deliciously, is the immediately recognizable voice of a noir narrator.
Still, the only indication that Engleson gives that his protagonist is consciously embracing the genre is the fact that at one point Gronsky watches a “noir gem” on Youtube for “inspiration.” Clearly, the novelist is having fun while never allowing pastiche to topple into parody. The growling, tough-talking narrator of “The Last Breadth” has exactly the right combination of verbal wit, cynicism, and metaphorical panache. An office is “shut tighter than a constipated scotch terrier” he says at one point, and soon after, “it wasn’t that I didn’t trust my new client. It was more…I didn’t trust my new client.” A phone call, of course, is a “dingle”; a close look is a “gander.” And then there is the occasional staccato sentence structure to underline the wry tone: “Runaway kid then. Didn’t actually go that far. The kid, or me.”
The most telling of such deft language is in the conclusion itself: for reasons that will, arguably, come clear a little later, it echoes in key ways the conclusion of Scratch an Old Wound, and, more important, the framing novel. Says a warm-hearted woman, Emily Bradshaw, to whom Jimmy, the first protagonist, is drawn: “Fancy buying me a drink?” Answers Jimmy: “I’m a fancy man.” Significantly, though, he follows this up with assertions that bridge the gap between glibness and sincerity. “It might be the last breath I would take as a lonely dick,” he says unguardedly, and then, more pointedly, “I’d leave that up to Emily Bradshaw. I fancied knowing her opinion.”
Scratch an Old Wound is written almost out of the same playbook, the most important difference being that the narrator this time has a deeply troubled past, in part because of his horrific experiences in the second World War (in which Bergen-Belsen becomes, for the purposes of the novel, “Belsen-Belsen”). In part, too, a woman he loved was lost to gang violence. Even more tellingly, as a kind of inversion of Gronsky’s troubled past, the protagonist, Danny, abandoned his wife and child.
This time, however, Danny, the protagonist, gets beyond the “wound” of his loneliness, and, indeed, the conventional cynicism of the noir genre. He finds a woman he genuinely loves and marries her: “There were still loose ends but that was life. Loose ends dangling like a bandage slipping off an old wound. Sometimes you scratch the wound and inflame it [but] but mostly you need to let it heel.”
And this, surely, is where Gronsky’s early aspirations to write fiction that embodies universal values finds its deepest resonance, and, in key ways puts paid to his later qualms about its frivolities. Danny has foregone vengeance and accepted a loving relationship. Gronsky might have decided this, as “fiction,” “required a fictional ending,” but of course, Engelson is also facing a decision about the ending of his fiction. Should it be, in the same way, “fictional”?—or something truer?
Far from opting for something “frivolous,” he, like Gronsky, gives the nod to the power and importance of human relationships. Like Gronsky, however, Engleson with affecting honesty, avoids giving his protagonist a pat or sentimental conclusion. In the words of Gronsky’s protagonist, the “future was uncertain for them.” With a resonance that goes far beyond his narratives, Gronsky decides he “was not yet skilled at endings. He knew that about himself. Perhaps no one really was all that skilled. They arrived, endings, did [sic]. This happened all the time, in fiction and in life. Sometimes they were planned. Other times they were most unexpected.”
In his relationship with Anthea, the granddaughter who has appeared in his garage like a “miracle,” as in his relationship with Miriam with whom, uncertainly, he considers marriage, Gronsky looks forward also uncertainly, but warmly, to his diminishing future. This, indeed, is “Gronsky’s life,” but, as Engleson suggests, it is much, much more than that. The very fact that the novel is self-published, launched without the support of a commercial publisher, gives a strange authenticity to this warm-hearted, sometimes playful, and also deeply serious novel.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at the University of Victoria. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), and Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Dan Gawthrop, Lyndon Grove, Ihor Holubizky, & Brent Raycroft, David Fushtey, Aaron Bushkowsky, Devon Field, Pirjo Raits, and Vince Ditrich for The British Columbia Review. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay. Visit his website here.
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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 now 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. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.