The Ravine by Paul Quarrington

[8 September 2008]

By Zachary Houle

Paul Quarrington’s The Ravine may not be the Great Canadian Novel writers in this nation often speak of, but it comes close. According to Wikipedia, it may soon become a movie. (Quarrington is working on not one, but two screenplays.) That’s good news, for The Ravine should, in a fair world, have as far a reach as possible – from book to the silver screen, from Canada to the rest of the world.

Film and television play a central role in The Ravine. Not only is the book’s narrator, Phil McQuigge, a down on his luck TV writer and producer, but the book is choc-a-bloc with references to such old TV shows as Sky King, The Ed Sullivan Show and, most of all, The Twilight Zone, particularly the episode “Time Enough At Last”. You know, the one where Burgess Meredith finds himself in a world where he is the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust, and finds that he can finally read all the books that he wants. Famously, he breaks his glasses at the end of the episode and cries, “That’s—that’s not fair. That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed ... ! It’s not fair!”

Fairness is a reoccurring theme, too, in the book, in which the aforementioned narrator’s life doesn’t seem to be very fair at all. Phil has lost his wife and kids to divorce thanks to his infidelity, and has lost his job as the producer of a popular TV series called Padre (well, popular at least in Canada, Japan, and Germany—the show got cancelled in the US after only two episodes aired on UPN). He also may be partially responsible for the death of said TV show’s star, who dies on the set while filming the final episode of Padre’s sixth season.

As such, Phil has turned to the bottle to nurse his wounds, and also has turned to the past to do the same. The book takes its title from an event that happened when Phil was a kid while exploring the Don Valley Ravine in Toronto—a horrific and embarrassing event involving Phil, his brother, another childhood friend, two teenage boys that sneak up on them, some trees, some rope, and a de-pantsing. Phil gets the notion that writing a novel about his life—and the embarrassing, mortifying event from his childhood—might somehow turn his fortunes around.

As a novel, The Ravine is clever and full of metafictional events, from sequences that are relayed to the reader as though it were a TV script, to phone conversations that the narrator has with everyone ranging from old acquaintances to phone sex workers, and directory assistance, among others. The novel is a mish-mash of events from Phil’s boyhood in the ‘60s—including highlights like the family’s first TV set, and going to the movies with childhood friends—to the present day, where Phil sets out to find out what really happened in the ravine on that fateful day by calling up old contacts, owing to a block in his memory.

As such, the novel isn’t really a coherent, linear narrative, but finds itself hopping from event to event, sequence to sequence. Quarrington, however, manages to seamlessly hold things together, despite all the moving parts. He references the art of spinning plates at one point in the story, and manages to do just that in The Ravine, going from one timeline to another without missing a beat.

One particularly enjoyable scene in the book involves a car trip in which the four occupants hold a conversation without Quarrington using identifiers for which character is speaking. In the hands of a lesser artist, the result would have been a muddled mess; here, he manages to make every character unique and have a voice of their own. It’s easy to know who’s talking, and the passages where he employs this device is just part of the magic and charm of this book.

Despite the gloomy and serious undertone to the book—there’s allusions to sexual assault that may or may not have happened to one of the characters on that fateful day in the ‘60s—The Ravine is actually a very funny book. One that might not get you laughing out loud, but that will at least put a smile to one’s lips. It takes a deft touch to move from pathos to hilarity, but Quarrington pulls it off in spades. Its only fault may be in its final pages, when events from the past threaten to repeat themselves in the present in an all too convenient and pat way, but most of the ride is fun.

Quarrington has already racked up a number of awards and nominations for his work, and one can bet that The Ravine will be short-listed for some such award—it’s that good. His 2004 novel Galveston was nominated for the Giller Prize, now known as the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is a cash award that goes to the best novel or short story collection published in Canada, as nominated and voted on by a jury. Whale Music won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 1989. King Leary (1987) won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and was the winner in 2008 of Canada Reads, a competition held by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to choose one book that every Canadian should read. In short, Quarrington ranks among the best living Canadian authors, period.

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