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The Education of Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Writer-filmmaker Alex Pugsley is following up his first solo novel, Aubrey McKee, with what is a trifecta of sorts. The Education of Aubrey McKee consists of a short story, a novel, and a play. All feature the same main character, Aubrey McKee, and all have similar themes—but they explore these themes using different literary techniques.

The short story, “The Calvin Dover Show,” has McKee meeting up with an old friend from his undergraduate days at the University of Toronto who has become very successful as an actor. The novel, The Poet, deals with McKee’s long relationship with Gudrun Peel, an aspiring poet. The play, “A Night with Quincy Tynes,” has McKee hanging out with an old friend from Halifax, a Black man who rose from dealing drugs to becoming a celebrated chef. Thematically, the short story and the play act as bookends for the novel, while the novel takes place first chronologically.

When the novel starts, McKee is in his twenties and a graduate student in chemistry at U of T, living in a downtown apartment with two male roommates. He meets Gudrun at a party for the launch of a poetry magazine. He describes himself as “wayward, clever, obstinate,” and “insecure,” while Gudrun is extremely beautiful—also an “interesting woman with interesting problems” according to a mutual friend—and “a talented writer.”

The novel, which is narrated by Aubrey, follows the couple as they struggle to get a foothold in life. Both are writers, she a poet and columnist, he, after dropping out of his graduate program, an unevenly employed dramatist and TV sketch writer. Initially, Gudrun works as a publicist for a book publisher, but gradually begins to get noticed for her own writing. The relationship between Aubrey and Gudrun has echoes in the short story and the play, which each examine the importance of friendship, both in good times and bad.

In all three parts of The Education of Aubrey McKee, what concerns Pugsley the most is his characters’ self-awareness (or lack of it)—their evolving sense of their own identity as they move through life. Almost all the characters are very smart and articulate—and complicated (the same can be said for Pugsley’s prose). And more than a few characters are seriously neurotic.

As if to reflect the intensity and anxiety of early adulthood, the dialogue often has a very intellectual tone, especially where characters in their twenties and early thirties theatrically try to display sophistication as they analyze where they are in their jobs, careers, and relationships.

This intensity fades as the characters age, and they strive, not always successfully, to gain a more realistic sense of self.

An underlying theme is the debate over what constitutes success or failure, whether in a career or in a relationship. Of what value is material success? What is love? What is friendship? Much of the often heated dialogue in all three parts of The Education of Aubrey McKee is the struggle to come up with a definite answer to these questions.

There is an intoxicating quality to Pugsley’s prose at times. This serves to give The Education of Aubrey McKee an emotional immediacy rarely found in a novel. Hopefully, readers will see more of Aubrey McKee in the future.

The Education of Aubrey McKee is published by Biblioasis.


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