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Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley

Reviewed by John Delacourt

Two glimpses of Halifax from two Canadian writers:

“It was bitterly cold. I could feel the cold tight across my forehead and the tension in the empty street. The packed snow had a frozen crust that glittered and crunched as I walked. And the houses appeared even more boarded up, as if you would have to go through several layers before you found something living. Someone had made a long slide in the sidewalk and with a run, I went down it. That helped. I could hear the whistle of a boat. The stars and the moon were out. And the intense cold seemed to have contracted everything, bringing the Atlantic and the frozen wastes of land to the west even more convincingly close.”

“The afternoon was veering cold—a December day that began brilliantly sunny, dimmed with storminess, flashed again into sunlight, was with the turning of the tide becoming gloomy and freezing. The North Atlantic was very much in the air, replacing the city’s mildness with rough winds that seemed to breeze in from icebergs eight hundred nautical miles away. I was shivering at the intersection of Argyle and Sackville streets, watching a very full moon float over the city of Dartmouth, when Cyrus appeared with his briefcase below. He darted up the sidewalk like a madman. He was smiling to himself and I guessed some plan was beginning to move forth in his imagination. What it was, of course, I didn’t know.”

The first passage is from Ottawa writer Norman Levine’s “Canada Made Me,” from 1958. The second is from Alex Pugsley’s “Aubrey McKee,” published just this year. Levine’s work of non-fiction was originally published in Canada with a short run of 500 copies and was received with either the scorn or the disinterest of Canadian reviewers and readers. It has gone on to be recognized—rightly, to this reviewer—as a work of enduring, poetic power and beauty, its stark, painterly depiction of a land of reduced expectations still so vivid and alive.

Pugsley’s novel, released perhaps with a larger run, has not offended or scandalized what’s left of a reviewing culture here; the Halifax of the seventies and eighties he has re-imagined is one of characters richly and lovingly rendered, complex and flawed and grappling with their own aspirations amid those familiar reduced expectations. He describes the home of the above-mentioned eccentric polymath Cyrus Mair as a “convergence of civilization, enchantment and dereliction” and it is an apt description of the Halifax where Aubrey McKee tries on and then transcends the shifting personae of his adolescence to take on the ultimate role of the exile in the novel’s final pages.

It is Aubrey’s voice that carries the novel. We come to know him as the son of an intermittently married lawyer father and actor mother. The volatility of these years when his family life is in flux, with the rapid adjustment to new neighbourhoods and new friendships in the city, makes of him a great watcher and shapeshifter. He is a boy who can mix as easily with budding degenerates like Howard Fudge, “the toughest kid in the North End, a kid who told teachers to fuck off, who pissed in the gas tanks of cop cars in the police station parking lot, who crashed a Toyota Celica into the Hyland movie theatre when he was twelve …” as he can with Cyrus Mair, the gifted scion of one of Halifax’s patrician families, whose house on Tower Road has become a kind of museum piece, filled with a labyrinth of second-hand books and the antique remnants of his family’s lost prominence and wealth.

Cyrus and Aubrey have a hunger for experience and self-invention, and in their teenage years, they bond over competitive tennis and the spiky post-punk music coming out of England in the late seventies. They find, in Karin Friday and Gail Beninger, young women who are more than their equals in their commitment to blaze brightly.

The four make up a nucleus of budding aesthetes, and they share their first efforts at artistic invention in a collective called “The Common Room.” Inevitably they form a band and they name it, appropriately enough, the Changelings. For a brief period, they’re “Halifamous” before each of them is pulled in a different direction to transcend the limitations of how this intense bond shaped them.

Pugsley expertly weaves their storylines together, culminating in the night of that storm quoted above. It’s Karin Friday’s wedding day, a farewell to Aubrey’s youth he can’t seem to face without his fellow ex-changelings, and in his last interactions with Gail and Cyrus, Aubrey realizes his own possibilities will not be realized in this city, what has shaped him might break him if he stays.

Joan Didion, in her famous essay on Hawaii, wrote “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Pugsley, equal parts poet and meticulous historian of his own private Halifax, has accomplished, with “Aubrey McKee,” a work of high literary art, remaking and claiming the city as his own once again in a sustained performance that pulses with that deep, radical love. In the annual befuddling review of what novels are shortlisted for awards and recognized here in Canada, you’d be forgiven for not having heard of “Aubrey McKee.” However, if we still read deeply a generation from now, it will rightfully belong on the same shelf with Levine as great Canadian literature, testament to the writing we eventually learn to love and honour.

Aubrey McKee is published by Biblioasis.


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