1154 The elusive shape of life

All That Monk Business
by Barry Kennedy

Surrey: Now Or Never Publishing, 2021
$19.95 / 9781989689202

Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski

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A novel can’t be everything to everyone, but some novels can be many things to many people. All That Monk Business, by actor, comedian, and writer Barry Kennedy, is one of these. It’s not often that both the title of the novel and the cover illustration give such a strong signal of a book’s flavour — or, in this case, many flavours. In addition to the joyous word-play in the title are the sprawling implications of “All” and the twists and turns implicit in “business,” some of it indeed monkey business, some of it commercial business, some of it the doings of the Monk family.

The quirky font used in the title of the current edition and the bright, caricatured cover drawing of a busy street scene (by artist Keith McKellar) suggest—accurately—how much the novel is built around colourfully odd characters, and how much it brings to life the muddle of a downtown neighbourhood.

Many readers will, of course, approach this as a comic novel. And as a comic novelist Barry Kennedy serves them well. Besides creating a rich vein of humour, however, he intertwines this humour with tones that are, at times, much darker and more bitter, but also, and more surprisingly perhaps, much warmer, even moving.

The humour comes from many directions. On the largest scale, Kennedy dishes up a sequence of preposterous events, most of them springing from his central character, Buddy Monk. His planning to go to England to enter a competition to win some bacon, his stealing a fridge, or, most prominently his suing a lawn bowling club for ageism, are all the stuff of broad comedy. It says a lot about Kennedy’s sense of absurdity that he makes (almost) the climactic event in the book an illegal and nearly disastrous meat raffle.

Barry Kennedy. Photo courtesy Winnipeg Comedy Festival

To complement such humour and, probably, for many, to overshadow it, is the flamboyant handling of language, much of it arising from nearly toppling hyperboles and off-the-wall similes. Readers will encounter the observation about the Korean deli owner, Kim, that he “weighs less than some of Buddy’s darker thoughts,” or the dry insistence that “Nita approaches the bar with collision speed,” or, again of Nita, that she wears “workout pants tight enough to reveal her mitochondria.”

Some of the rough and tumble of language takes its cue from the thick colloquialisms through which a whole range of characters channel their thoughts. Some of these colloquialisms, like “gussy the old girl up a tad” are recognizably mainstream. Others, making short work of traditional grammar, are hugely inventive, like the recollection of “a certain East German swimmer with a back as wide as Europe and a trainer could’ve opened a drug store….”

Turning his ear to broken English, Kennedy cheerfully gives the verbal stage to Kim, the deli owner: “Lot of people in big hurry,” he observes grimly, “Should stop and smell a flower.” At the opposite end of the playful linguistic register is the ninth-century Norse poem that Buddy (of course) dishes out, full volume, to his fellow gym-goers. Case closed: Kennedy loves back eddies of language and loves giving them an extra swirl.

At the same time, though, he can shift from comic phrasing to real poetry in a heartbeat. The barely literate Al, for example, can think affectionately of his wife, “the best way is just doing whatever it takes for the one with the high, hard hold on your heart.” Louie, usually mired almost as deeply in brusque colloquialisms, emerges from them to describe Bo’s drawings as “raw, scorching,” redolent of “muscular and fiery grace.”

The range of characters in these examples reflects the degree to which the book is peopled with a tangle of colourful characters, to the extent, in fact, that not a single one approximates … normality. One of the most outspoken, indeed “brazen” characters, Devona, she of the trademark salmon pink shoes, delivers a piece on the very principle of normality, what she calls “the team.” “You got everybody trying to be the same … it’s enough scaring them into thinking that’s the only way to go and to shut their stupid faces less they get kicked off the team.” In one stroke she makes clear why Kennedy has chosen a poor part of Vancouver for his novel: “Round here most of us already been off the team awhile.”

It would be difficult to disagree with this assessment. Devona herself is one of the most vividly foul-mouthed examples, but alongside her are, for example, “Sally of the Alley” and her mentally compromised brother “Bo,” wandering the streets in one costume after another cobbled together from thrift store scraps. Al Esposito, the café owner with his flourishes of vituperation, along with his tough talking wife June, constantly run afoul of Buddy, June’s loose-cannon son, carving his own niche in the neighbourhood with his unconventional barber shop, “Mullets to Mohawks.” Equally “off the team” is Buddy’s estranged wife Nita, ablaze with dreads, running from one social cause to another with dizzying aplomb. Joining these is Louie, a retired old salt, new to Vancouver and trying to sort his way through this tangle of characters.

Rather than marshalling these characters into order with a strongly centre narrative point of view (let alone giving us many visual cues with which to anchor them), Kennedy has, daringly, allowed them to speak for themselves — and at each other. Though much of the time he turns their dialogue into sparring matches, much of the time, as well, he gives us a battery of inner monologues, often in rapid succession. The fact that much of their thoughts are about each other provides a heady mix of disorienting points of view, each radically revising or undercutting the other.

Thus, for example, Nita perceives Bo as a “strange costumed man” with his “Dirty bare legs sprouting from oversized boots … white shirt torn and dirty.” “One eye,” she notes, “is swollen, rendering his bizarre features all the more rebarbative.” From Bo’s perspective, however, given in the very next paragraph, Nita looks at “everyone with that smile people have when they don’t really know what they’re doing but are happy to keep doing it. Bo understands. People who feel out of place have misplaced their friends, that’s all.” Having set us up to see Bo as a socially inept oddball, Kennedy throws us off centre by immediately putting us inside a Bo who is thoughtful … and wise.

Barry Kennedy as Admiral Corman in Battlestar Galactica, Hero (2006)

Of all these characters, it is Buddy Monk, probably the most central character, who is most protean. Al sums him up as a “troublemaker,” and considering his frequent gruffness, this doesn’t seem altogether off the mark: it is typical of Buddy that, when Louie makes an earnest appeal to him, Buddy is “anything but sure he gives a shoemaker’s shit.” Driving much of the action with his wild schemes (like suing the lawn bowling club), Buddy also, disarmingly, often rides a wave of manic good-heartedness. Wildly protective of tiny Kim, for example, he gives violent chase to a careless cyclist who has knocked the deli owner to the ground.

Bigger character revelations await. Amid much emotional turbulence, Buddy makes blundering but affecting attempts to repair his damaged marriage with Nita. And experiencing a major discovery about his family relationships, he evinces — as Nita sees it — “an almost childlike wonder” and gentleness. Perhaps most tellingly, the book ends with Buddy making a major act of potentially life-threatening generosity, an act he dismisses with self-denigrating good-humour.

While, then, this is largely a novel circling around a rich cast of characters, it is many other novels at the same time. It is a novel of place; it is a novel with a social vision; it is a novel about family; it is a love story; and it is a novel with a good, old-fashioned plot alive with suspense, surprises, and revelations.

Scuba divers discover a box underneath the false bottom of a sunken fishing boat. Many years before, two men stumble upon a package of cocaine. One of these men dies under suspicious circumstances. Years later, one of them tries to decode the will of the dead man and take it to his family in Vancouver. This is the stuff of a rip-roaring yarn. In Kennedy’s hands, though, it becomes inflected with feints and shadows, and, more important, deeply human discoveries.

Readers intrigued by this storyline will find it that much more engaging if, as residents of Vancouver or Vancouver Island, they find familiar landmarks jumping to life. Not one of those British Columbian writers of fiction to be coy about location, Kennedy peppers his book with references to Port Alberni and Comox, the Departure Bay ferry, the Upper Levels Highway, Steveston waterfront, and so on. The Fanny Bay Inn, between Courtenay and Qualicum, does a particularly memorable star turn.

It is Commercial Drive, the Ivanhoe Pub (a real place), and other parts of downtown Vancouver that Kennedy stirs most to fictional life.

The flavour of the street permeates the book, “the tire-hum and muffler-thrum and barrage of crosswalk vehicle-backing-warning-beeps and signals and alarms.” The evocation of poverty on Hastings Street is poetry:

A workplace street, an artery to trundle down with bags and shopping carts of cans and bottles, a sidewalk market for salvage and castoffs, this and this. It’s all on sale here — who’s holding, who’s looking, ass, hash, trash, no returns, no guarantees. Also a living space street, a spot out of the rain under an awning against the wall, sleeping bag as a cushion, rummage through the shopping-cart closet for a change of clothes, reach into the plastic-bag fridge for the other half of the sandwich.

Penetrating but subtle, Kennedy keeps that vision of urban poverty in place while not making claims to a major socially realistic analysis. It is, perhaps, enough for Buddy to mutter about street people, “no regular food, horrifying hygiene, addictions, exposed to the elements and near every hand against them. How do they keeping going?” and for Nita to respond, with Kennedy, “Practise.”

This is not to say that the social forces that underlie lives are merely part of the background. On the contrary, in many different ways, some of them hilariously funny, some of them wryly satiric, the author directs his characters’ thoughts and gazes on a society that gets it wrong. Shop owners and entrepreneurs can be ridiculously jumpy, judgemental, and intolerant. Avoiding the poor, the rich “step out of their Range Rovers and BMWs, happily up to their armpits in the waters of lifestyle maintenance.” By the end of the book, Buddy’s bizarre and whacky attempt to sue the lawn bowling club starts to make sense, steeped as lawn bowling is the lifestyle of the elite and insulated, governed by “politeness” and “bloody smugness.”

Put the struggling and the affluent together, and what demarcates them all is probably the major propelling social force of the whole novel — money. Not only does the main plot-line centre on a mysterious will, but also most of the characters’ lives are permeated with worries about jobs, keeping the shop afloat, even finding the next meal. Amongst these Nita is the most eloquent: “Didn’t our very lucky corner of the world get to a certain place and now have to watch it all being redirected to CEO bonuses and levitated from the street to the penthouse through tax exemptions and unfair policies?”

But, while poverty and wealth provide a solid, important, dimension to the book, other, more elusive, issues underlie Kennedy’s vision of the human experience. When, near the beginning of the book, Bo reflects on the fine line between good and bad luck, he identifies the very issue that Buddy comes equally to realize by the book’s end: “Karma can kiss his royal ass. His destiny is nothing more than what he can create from serendipity and the predispositions fed him by his genes.” The elusive shape of life, its essential strangeness and surprises, is what, finally, Kennedy leaves with his readers. When Louie says, “A man little comprehends his own biography,” he puts in one way what the readers can’t help but feel about the lives of the weird and wonderful characters with whom they have come to feel kinship.

It says a good deal about the fundamental good-heartedness of the novel that even the most cynical and spiky characters show themselves capable of enormous affection. Al’s muffled, puzzled love for June, Sally’s quiet nurturing of her brother, Buddy’s loving admiration for his mother, Louie’s surprised discovery of his love for Devona are only some of the many patterns of affection that colour the last part of the novel.

Barry Kennedy

At his most reflective—including thoughts on the “why” of quarks—Buddy ends his searching questions on what is surely the core of the novel: “And while he’s entertaining the notion of unanswerable questions, allow him to tack on the entire mystery of love and family and friendship and connection.” And the fact is, along with all of the minor trajectories of quest and resolution throughout the novel, it is what Kennedy does with his central couple, Nita and Buddy, that makes the deepest impact. The world of fiction is rife with author after author trying to write a love-making scene from a novel angle. Kennedy does it as well as just about anyone. His fresh, funny, moving, sincere, playful, but soulfully erotic love-making scene concludes with probably the most important point of the book: “Science is predictive and practical. Art is contingent and sublime. Ergo, love is Art.”

The novel concludes with the discovery of long-buried treasure. The nature of the treasure says a good deal about what Kennedy suggests is “contingent and sublime.”

Except that that isn’t quite true. True to the comic spirit of novel, Kennedy adds… an “epilogue.” Enough said.

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Theo Dombrowski

Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several walking and hiking guides including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has also reviewed books by Ann Shin, Lynne QuarmbyRenate BelczykDeni Ellis BéchardAislinn HunterEva Holland, Anne Enright, and others. Visit his website here. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

 The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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