Tag Archives: canada

The Luck of Ginger Coffey: Brian Moore

“Fifteen dollars and three cents. He counted it and put it in his trouser-pocket. Then picked up his Tyrolean hat off the dresser, wondering if the two Alpine buttons and the little brush dingus in the hatband weren’t a shade jaunty for the place he was going. Still, they might be lucky to him. And it was a lovely morning, clear and crisp and clean. Maybe that was a good augury. Maybe today his ship would come in.”

Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne concern female protagonists. The former novel is the story of a married woman who falls into an affair when her husband decides to not join her on holiday. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is the story of a spinster in her 40s, a piano teacher, who moves into a shabby boarding house where she meets the landlady’s shifty brother. Both novels are 5 star reads.

the luck of ginger coffey
The Luck of Ginger Coffey
centres on an Irishman who’s moved to Canada. When the novel opens, it’s 1956 and 39-year-old Ginger Coffey has run out of luck… Ginger, his long-suffering wife, Veronica and daughter live in a third-rate boarding house. So far, Ginger has had a number of lucky breaks. When he left the army, his wife’s family pulled strings to get him a job at a distillery. In a huff, Ginger resigned and so began an odyssey of different jobs in different towns.

Another lucky break: Ginger’s father, a solicitor, died and left his son 2,000 pounds and so Ginger used that money to move to Canada ostensibly as a representative for a distillery. Ginger runs through his inheritance, and now there’s a pittance left. Sensing disaster, Veronica wants him to use the money they have left to return to Ireland where at least relatives “would not let you starve so long as you were one of them.” Trouble is there’s not enough money for the tickets, and Veronica is unaware of this.

The novel follows Ginger’s humiliating attempts to find employment. Since he’s not really trained for anything, he has to start at the bottom and most employers consider him too old for jobs they hire kids for. At first Ginger takes a grandiose stance but soon he’s ready to take whatever comes his way.

He went into the living room with the Montreal Star but he was too upset to read it. He went back into the kitchen and brought out two quarts of beer. Last of the last. He poured himself a glass, lay down on the sofa and switched the radio on, trying to salvage something out of this miserable bloody evening. He searched for music, for music hath charms and had better have, because, looking back on the day, he had a savage bloody breast on him, all right. Hat in hand to younger men, wife sniveling to strangers, asked to lie his way into some job he’d be caught out in, and what else? Oh, a savage bloody breast.

Ginger’s charm worked in his youth, but now he comes across as sad and pathetic. He dresses somewhat inappropriately and the charm that got him places for all those years now seems tired, stale, and inappropriate.

“Hello there,” Coffey said, jovially advancing with his large hand outstretched, the ends of his mustache lifting into a smile. And Beauchemin took the proffered hand, his mind running back, trying to place this guy. He could not recall him at all. A limey type and, like most limey types, sort of queer. Look at this one with his tiny green hat, short bulky car coat and suede boots. A man that age should know better than to dress like a college boy, Beauchemin thought.

Ginger isn’t a bad man; he’s feckless, happy-go-lucky and convinced that he’s upper-management material. Basically Ginger has to suffer humiliations and grow up; his charm has worn thin, and since the day of reckoning has been delayed for over 2 decades, there are a lot of mortifying experiences along the way to his enlightenment. The underlying argument, of course, is that painful life lessons must be learned and the sooner the better. This is a much slighter novel than the other two I read from this author. I liked it but it wasn’t as powerful. The best parts of the plot concern Ginger’s working life at the newspaper and his camaraderie with fellow employees who all refer to their “Scottish Beelzebub” eagle-eyed boss as Hitler.’

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Canada by Richard Ford

I’ve had my eye on Richard Ford’s novels for some time. He appears to be a tremendously popular writer with a loyal following, so when I saw Canada and read the synopsis, I knew I wanted to read the book. This story is told by Dell Parsons, now in his 60s, but he’s at the awkward age of 15 when the story begins in 1960 Montana. And the novel starts with a bombshell:

First I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.

Now that’s a hell of a first sentence, and it’s followed by:

The robbery is the most important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first. Our parents were the least likely two people in the world to rob a bank.

 Ok, I’m in. Tell me the story.

For approximately the first half of the novel, Dell describes his family and the events that led up to the bank robbery. Dell’s father, Bev, originally from Alabama, was a WWII pilot, but became a supply officer in peacetime.  Dell’s mother, Neeva is a child of Polish Jewish immigrants. It’s a wild mismatch–a marriage born from the uncertainty of WWII, and now that the war is over, the vast differences between Dell and his twin sister Berner’s parents only seem to be growing. Bev’s continued military career helps sideline the family’s problems, and with continual relocations, impermanence covers some of the tracks of an unhappy marriage. Dell says that after years of transfers from base to base, and one school after another, the family “came to a stop in Great Falls, Montana, in 1956.” Dell’s mother, who loathes Montana and its lack of “organized society” is a substitute teacher, but even though she works within the community, she appears to suffer from “growing alienation.” Meanwhile, Dell’s father works at the local base until he’s discharged from the Air Force under a cloud of disgrace. This is when things begin to go horribly wrong for Dell and his family. 

The first half of the novel worked well for this reader–albeit the pacing of the novel is somewhat slow. With the first dramatic lines which mention bank robbery and murder, it then takes almost half the book to get to the point where the action starts. This in itself isn’t a problem, but it does mean that for approximately 200 pages, a man in his 60s relates the events that took place over 4o years earlier as he remembers them. Dell tells his story, slowly savouring each memory, sometimes going back over covered material and adding detail–as if through the telling of the tale, it will all begin to make sense somehow. Yet as a narrator, Dell is flawed. A lifetime of experiences have failed to illuminate the events that took place. For example, Dell mentions several times that he doesn’t quite understand why his mother chose to participate in the bank robbery. She’s even described as “weak,” and yet to this reader, it seemed fairly obvious that Dell’s mother agreed to join in the bank robbery in order to spare her son’s involvement. 

On the positive side, Ford nailed the nomadic nature of the military family, the ever-shifting sense of impermanence and sense of alienation. He was also spot on with his depiction of the military family who findsthemselves increasingly at odds with one another once the continual moving and unpacking has ground to a permanent halt. For this reader, the second section of the novel–the part that takes place in Canada–seemed like emotional overkill–almost a sadistic exercise in just what one can do with a young narrator who can’t really do much to help his own circumstances. Ultimately this is a very sad tale, and the secondary events stretched credulity–that or Dell is one of the unluckiest characters in American fiction.

I know I’m in the minority opinion here, for Ford seems to be a much-loved American writer, and there’s a lot here that is quintessentially American. Here’s what should be an all-American family: Dad, a war hero of sorts, mother a Jewish immigrant, but they fail to fit into American society. Of course, the iconic escape to Canada is part of the American mythos–if all else goes wrong, head north to Canada or South to Mexico depending on one’s preference. Canada seems to argue that when one is cursed with bad fortune, there’s no escape, and that depressing cloud certainly follows Dell to the end of the book. Dell’s father, Bev is by far the most interesting character in the book. He’s one of those charming, impecunious, foolish fellows full of brilliant ideas tainted with fecklessness and dishonesty.

For another review, go to Kevin From Canada

Review copy from the publisher

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Filed under Fiction, Ford Richard