4 min

Shovelling it on

Is there still hope? Will Timothy Findley ever create a contemporary gay character who isn’t marginal or tainted or torn with regret by his sexuality, a character who inhabits his gay identity with the same certainty of self, the same grappling with life’s usual dilemmas as any straight character?

Will he, in other words, dignify gay men with fictional queers who reflect today’s real ones – who reflect, in fact, his own life?

Spadework, Findley’s tenth novel, has just about sealed the door on that hope. What a frustrating paradox this man is! A man who with his partner of almost 40 years, William Whitehead, offers a picture of devoted domesticity, of casual openness and ease with his adoring public. The two are the cuddly, teddy-bearish darlings of CanLit bookchat, a repository for discreet approval and living proof that love can endure.

If you’re in the habit of feeling good about Findley, glad of his affirming visibility and arresting artistry, and proud (come on, admit it) of his award-winning international stature as a writer both gay and Canadian, then you’d best give Spadework a miss. Sloppily crafted, filled with cheap shocks and mushy sentiment, the book is also a slap in the face to all gay men who are glad to be themselves.

Set in the high-strung thespian world of Ontario’s Stratford Festival, the story opens with the swirl and glitter of the 1998 season launch. Attending the first night of Much Ado About Nothing, prop-maker Jane Kincaid is seated with her young son Will, and the play’s director, Jonathan. In a few moments her husband Griffin will grace the stage in the role of Claudio.

Sexual tensions are inevitably a part of the creative thrust in any theatre company, and Findley has enough acting and play-writing experience – at Stratford and elsewhere – to know the scene intimately. His expertise initially pays off in the portrayal of erotic frisson, of the mad whirl of egos and openings, the after-hours carousing, and the proud (often arrogant) dedication to craft and artistry. For theatre people, parts of this book will spur sharp, even painful flashes of recognition.

After 12 rousing curtain calls, Jane fights her way to Griffin’s dressing room. She’s dismayed but not surprised to find Griffin stark naked among his fans, barely hiding his equipment behind a makeup towel. Vague suspicions of infidelity turn slowly to smouldering jealousy, souring Jane’s cherished hopes for married bliss.

Enter Troy, a spurned boyfriend from Jane’s days at Plantation high school in Louisiana. She hasn’t seen him in 15 years. Unannounced, he drives to Stratford and shows up at her front door. He accepts lunch, eating in surly silence.

Then he grabs her by the hair, drops his pants and squirts his seed over her face. Then he leaves. Next morning the news brings word of his death in a fiery crash on Highway 401.

Troy is a narrative irrelevance – the first in a series. We never learn what drove him to commit such an act, nor any relevant details of his life. He’s a one-shot shock device.

Meanwhile, Jane seduces the Bell repairman, a beautiful and callow Polish youth whose infant son is dying because his wife’s religious beliefs disallow medical treatment. In a later scene, the child dies in hospital after being spirited away from his mum. Despite being diagnosed with irreversible coma, the little lad awakens moments before death to wave a mawkish goodbye to his father.

Five untimely deaths directly affect the main characters. All occur within the space of six weeks: car crash, tot coma tragedy, heroin overdose, anorexic suicide and terrorist murder. Not one of these deaths is connected to any of the others. The novel begins to read like tabloid news: the jolts connected only by the paper they’re printed on. When grief at all this loss is presented, it’s in cursory scenes that either echo the death of Little Nell in their attainment of the hackneyed, or are simply glib and false.

Two men leave their wives in the book. One is confused and ambitious, the other a slimy manipulating jerk. Both are homosexual or bisexual. So the only queers Findley offers up are two heels who abandon their wives and children. Do they have any gay friends in this thriving theatre town? We never find out. Findley isolates his two homosexual characters inside a closed box of moral error, based on their furtive or exploitive pursuit of gay desire. (It’s as if we’ve reverted to Tea And Sympathy – minus the sympathy.) How are they redeemed? Well, Griffin goes back to his wife and son – after having ecstatic sex for a month in the arms of his director.

Jonathan is the director and Findley’s single portrait of an unencumbered gay lifestyle. He has left his wife and son years before and now makes a career out of casting-couch seduction. At the end of the book Jonathan’s son is murdered by Shining Path guerillas in Peru, teaching his dad a grim lesson: gay fathers should stick around.

Maybe they should. But Jonathan’s ensuing grief for his son is unbelievably flippant and phony. He’s ludicrously shallow; a preening, self-absorbed, cardboard faggot.

What about homosexuals who don’t marry women? What about the ones who love men and know the love is good, and worth sharing through life’s slings and arrows? Absurdly, Findley’s Stratford has none of those. But we know it has at least two. They’ve been married for four decades. One of them wrote this novel. I can’t imagine why.

Spadework is a shabby potboiler that falsifies life. It’s

a much greater disappointment than 1999’s Pilgrim. Worse is

to go back to Findley’s 1976 breakthrough work, The Wars,

and see the long view of what’s been lost. Critics have

already been falsely generous to this book – which is an

insult really, an assumption that the author is somehow

incapable. Timothy Findley’s mind is intact but his literary

standards are in free-fall.

He should begin whatever process is needed to restore his creative integrity, or stop writing novels.


By Timothy Findley.

Harper Flamingo.

408 pages. $35.