Writing Life

Unlikely Saints

It’s been about a year since I went to emergency with my hockey playing concussed daughter. At the time, all that concerned me was her head, but I instinctively sat between her and the homeless man. Beside him, on the other side, was an old man and a middle-aged woman, his daughter I assumed. I felt sorry for the old man, having to sit next to the homeless guy, not because he smelled, which he did, but because he was edgy, unpredictable. I was watchful, protective, ready to move my daughter, who was playing a game on her phone.

One of the nurses sauntered over to the homeless guy. “Let’s see that foot,” she said.

“It’s kind of dirty.”

“Never mind. Just take off your sock.”

He took it off. The foot was swollen and bluish.

“Did you fall off the roof or jump?”

“Fell,” he said.

“Were you drunk?”

“Oh no,” he said.

“Were you on any drugs?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I was.”

“Okay, we’ll get to you soon. How about your arm—that’s a terrible bandage. Did you get that at ER?”

He nodded. “Yesterday.”

“We’ll take care of that, too.”

The old man didn’t hide the fact that he was listening. “Not too bad,” he said to the homeless guy. I worried for him. I didn’t think it was a good idea to start conversations with strung out men showing evidence of careless violence. “Look what I’ve got.” He raised his pants leg, showing off old gouges and scars in his calf.

“Wow,” the homeless guy said. “How’d you get that?”

“I rode my motorcycle into a van. Back when I was young.”

“Hell raiser,” the homeless guy said.

The old man smiled. No, he grinned, face lighting up. “You know anyone in Innisfill?” he asked. (It reminded me of the little girl on a beach in Israel who asked me if I knew Ellen in Canada, and I wondered if he was losing his marbles.) “I’m from Innisfill,” he said.

“You know Jackson Radfill?” the homeless guy asked.

“Sure,” the old man said. “He lives around the corner.”

“He’s my cousin. I used to play at that house.”

Right then the nurse called us to an examination room. All I cared about was my daughter’s head, and, over the days that followed, waiting for her to smile again. But the conversation stuck with me, the pleasure on the old man’s face, the respect he gave to the guy next to him, their mutual interest in each other, the unlikely discovery of connection lifting both out of the moment. Something ordinary, but uncommon, a kind of unselfconscious decency. A hell raiser with long scars and scooped out flesh and unstinting humanity.

Book Reviews, Book Stuff

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Little Failure
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a memoir about life as an immigrant child from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, a subject that I’ve become very interested in because of this memoir. I rated this a four (though I am against ratings really) because the first part, about Shteyngart’s childhood, is fantastic. Had it stayed that way, I would be raving about it, had it not been that good, I wouldn’t bother adding it to my books.

The writing about his childhood is hilarious, biting, vivid. I was really struck by how little was different in the Soviet Union, by way of material life, in the 1970s from 1930s Poland (my parents’ memories). His parents even treated his asthma with cupping (in Yiddish bankes): heating small glass vessels to create a vacuum which are then put on the ailing person’s back, thereby sucking up the skin to suck up the vapours or something. My grandmother was a specialist in “laying bankes” in the pre-ww2 years.

The next part of the story, his years of being stoned and drunk in high school and university were pages I got through for the sake of the first part, and because even there his writing was good enough to keep me going, even if I was disappointed that as I went there was just more of the same.

The last part of the memoir covers his return to Russia with his parents, and that felt to me inhibited and truncated, abruptly so. His parents are still alive, and I had the feeling that there was a lot more to say, and that if he were to write his memoirs when he was older, it would be more satisfying to read, both because of maturity and freedom.

He was on the jury of the Giller Prize, the year that Web of Angels wasn’t listed, and, oddly enough, reading this memoir was a relief. I could see why my novel wouldn’t be his cup of tea. Too bad The Singing Fire wasn’t up in 2012–I think that would have been more in his line. But after all this time, the sting has gone out of it thanks to Little Failure. So for that alone, it should get four stars!

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