August. Callan Wink.

Wink, Callan. August. Random House, New York, 2020. F;4/20.

I was impressed with this writer as you can see in my review of his short story collection strangely titled Dog Run Moon. I was looking forward to his taking on long fiction and downloaded this novel pretty much as soon as it appeared. The two things on my mind about Wink are the man’s man thing – which should put him in the company of Hemingway and Shepard, or at least in that of lesser characters like Jim Harrison – and his captivating writing in the short story collection. He maintains the guy thing here, to the point for me of rubbing our noses in it, but I’m sorry I don’t find the same classy literary imagination.

Reverse snobbery is an interesting behaviour.  To us at times on the receiving end (I was raised in an affluent family and spent far too long in university) it can be a bit devastating. Putting on airs is only part of what honest hard-working unaffected people can’t stand about arrogance, elitism, entitlement, and all the falsehood that goes with it, but in the same way that narcissism can get out of proportion, so can victim behaviour that gets carried away with sending up perceived tormentors who are really just going about their reasonable lives.

The tormentors for Callan Wink seem to be art (writing in particular) and women. He’s at pains to let us know that he’s no fancy-pants, a guy but just an ordinary guy, guiding people on fishing trips in the waterways of Montana, and well yeah happens to be a published and award-winning fiction-writer sort of on the side. But let’s be clear that he’s really not that interested in the froufrou stuff that goes with that. He’s pretentiously unpretentious as one critic put it.

Young August grows up on a farm with a dad who pays him to exterminate wild cats in the barn (this scene was part of one of the impressive short stories). These are not wildcats but feral kitty cats. He poisons them all, making a killing in two ways. His parents separate, the dad hooking up with a much younger girl and the mum, with literary pretensions, getting August out of town. The boy ends up off in rural Montana working for a ranch owner, a fully-developed intriguing character. He is befriended by a self-styled rodeo lothario and August’s non-success with a pretty girl and drunken violence subsequent are stark and realistic to any man unfortunate enough ever to have had a similar experience. But for me this scene was awkwardly in the face of #MeToo, instead of finding a way to masculine sympathy with it, or at least to some intelligence and ambiguity in its criticism.

Wink’s women are never agents of anything as close to home as his amorous frustration. August is lonely but his adventures playing football, chasing girls real and imaginary, getting hurt at his job on the farm, and keeping up with his boss’ feud with a neighbour never pull him into a close or intimate relationship. The world just doesn’t seem to be giving August a fair chance, and in the end it isn’t clear what Wink thinks or feels about that.

(August) thought that if everyone in the world felt (troubled by life’s unfairness) it wouldn’t be so bad, he could chalk it up as a reality of the human condition, but as far as he could tell, everyone else was fine and it was just him that couldn’t find a way to properly live. Most of the time he didn’t want to be in his own company, but he couldn’t think of any good way out of it.

There are moments when I feel the tough guy in the detail; too bad the the subtext usually sabotages the impact:

It was a beautiful thing to put the tip of his shoulder pad square into the back of a quarterback who was scanning downfield for a receiver. To feel the hard woof of breath upon impact, to have the speed and control and strength to keep his legs driving, to feel the other guy’s feet leave the ground in that moment before August put him to the turf with every ounce of clean malice in his body. To roll off and stand over a crumpled form and revel in the hurt — that was part of it, too.

There is for me in Hemingway, Shepard, Clint Eastwood, even John Wayne and other serious he-men who also succeed in the art world a fearlessness toward and realistic engagement with two things Callan Wink seems to circle around: women and art itself. He is in his mid-30s and at his best has a real way with words. But this time out I think he’s more like Jim Harrison than any of the above legends. I hope for the sake of us readers he wins his personal struggle through writing, and of course for his sake that he just wins it, either that way or out catching fish.

I recommended his short story collection. This novel not so much. 6.3/8.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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