When I begin reading books I often have stylistic expectations and this is even more true in the case of novels written by poets. Often if a poet tries their hand at writing a full-length novel or when a short-story writer makes same transition, I view the move with a certain amount of trepidation. I'm all for writers expanding their horizons by experimenting in different genres, but the results are often mixed. Margaret Atwood is one of the best success stories in terms of authors who has produced great work within multiple genres and I would argue that Victoria author Patrick Lane is another.
Though he is best known for his poetry, his recent memoir There Is a Season, has been both a critical and commercial success and remains one of the books I most regret that I haven't gotten around to reading. The book that I did read is Lane's first foray into fiction, his novel Red Dog, Red Dog. What most attracted me to this book is the fact that it is set in the interior of British Columbia and its tone reflects the grit of that part of Western Canada. This is not the genteel, more British than the British hippie haven that I inhabit, but rather the more earthy, rough and tumble Wild West. The story focuses on the Stark family, the narrator being the deceased sister of the protagonist, Alice. Alice tells the tale of the emotional Tom Stark during one pivotal week in the life of the family using language which I would never associate with the psyche of an infant girl. This gritty tone is presumably because the narrator has adopted the jaded tone of the people of this small town and the Starks in particular. With the exception of Marilyn, Tom's girlfriend, the town seems composed of troubled souls addicted to drugs and hopelessly doomed to change their fate.
Eddie Stark is the embodiment of the tragic dysfunction amongst the people of the community. Though it seems everyone has their share of personal demons, no character is fated for a tragic end quite the way Eddie is. He has that classic doomed rebel air about him and his charisma attracts people to him. A power which he uses to manipulate those around him including his mother and Tom. Inevitably he pulls Tom into his schemes and relies on his brother to get him out of the scrapes that a drug-addicted criminal often get into. Tom's conflict between his loyalty to his brother and his own moral compass is the most compelling aspect of the novel and it kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the story.
The dilemma that Lane creates for Tom is not the only impressive aspect of the novel. A criticism which people often make of poets who write novels is the language they employ. Sometimes poets (and novelists too) get carried away with creating indelible word pictures to the detriment of character development and plot. I felt that Lane balanced the language, plot and character development remarkably. His gritty tone is consistent throughout the novel and is perfectly in keeping with the setting of a despairing, dusty farming town. Through the memories related by the narrator, a realistic, vivid picture of the main and minor characters is painted and I found myself caring a lot about the fate of these flawed individuals. I have been reading a lot of great, quality books lately, but Red Dog, Red Dog is definitely the one that I would most heartily recommend and it makes me proud to see an author from my hometown able to so successfully straddle the novelist/poet divide.