Watching a Man Break a Dog’s Back: Poems for a Dark Time – Vancouver Sun, Apr. 11 2020, by Tom Sandborn
Watching a Man Break a Dog’s Back: Poems for a Dark Time – Ormsby Review, Apr. 3 2020, Interview: Tom Wayman with Nathaniel G. Moore
The Shadows We Mistake For Love – Quill and Quire, Dec. 2015, by Brenda Schmidt
The Shadows We Mistake For Love – Winnipeg Free Press, 11/14/2015, by Jess Woolford
Dirty Snow – The Chronicle Herald, Jan. 10, 2015, Collections offer important voices on war, by George Elliott Clarke
Winter’s Skin, Dirty Snow – Canadian Literature #220 (Spring 2014), Wayman in Winter by Owen Percy
Dirty Snow – Vancouver Weekly, Oct. 26, 2012, A Poetic Call to Action by Chris Shalom
Boundary Country, A Vain Thing, Woodstock Rising – Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010), On the Way with Wayman by Neil Querengesser
Boundary Country – Globe and Mail, July 7, 2007, Western transgression by Jim Bartley
. . .
Watching a Man Break a Dog’s Back: Poems for a Dark Time (2020)
B.C. poet Tom Wayman offers anguish and hope in new collection
Wayman clearly wants to demonstrate that even if poetry cannot change the world, it can provide comfort and courage — even in times as dark as our own.
Book review by Tom Sandborn
Despite W. H. Auden’s insistence that “poetry makes nothing happen,” those who make poems or love them tend to want to believe Percy Bysshe Shelley was right when he called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of mankind.”
We want the artfully arranged words, the compelling rhythms and the haunting images to add up to something more than the pleasures they deliver.
Poetry, we want to insist, is more than platitudes and Platonism in a sweet sauce, more than elegantly posed and solved intellectual and esthetic puzzles, more even more than the heart-piercing pleasures it sometimes evokes — it can change the world.
The prize-winning B.C. poet Tom Wayman, best known for championing poetry that reflects and respects the lives of ordinary working people, subtitles his latest collection Poems for a Dark Time, and he clearly wants to demonstrate that even if poetry cannot change the world, it can provide comfort and courage, even in times as dark as our own.
These are poems that aspire to more than elaborate word play or easy gusts of feeling. Wayman can sketch out the long arc of friendship and the anguish of loss, as he does in a section of elegies.
He can render the beauties of the rural landscape where he now makes his home in southeastern B.C. in one passage, and the intricate dance of ego and ambition that surrounds life as an academic in the next — and nail both with impressive power.
He can present horrific state violence in Restoration of Order and then shift his tone to tender erotic memory in Bedspread.
Two poems, Why I Write and Rant: Who I Write For, can be usefully read as Wayman’s credo — his attempt to justify the odd business of poetry in the 21st century.
In the first he describes his work as “Words, pages/launched into air/like a fan of yellowed leaves submitted/by alder or birch/to October’s winds.”
In the second, he lists his ideal readers as: “…the losers, the creepy, the underground/outlaws because nobody well adjusted, “normal”/in the judgment of a toxic/social environment is likely to strive toward/ a fairer, more egalitarian/economic and political arrangement.” So much for Auden’s defeatism!
Wayman is still at work creating poems that are as astringent and individual as human pain, and as universal as our highest hopes for a beloved community. Readers will be grateful for this record of his latest labours.
Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver.
. . .
The Shadows We Mistake For Love (2015)
Quill and Quire
★The Shadows We Mistake for Love
by Tom Wayman
Near the end of “Green Hell,” the second of 14 stories in Tom Wayman’s wonderful new collection (all set in the West Kootenay region of B.C.’s Slocan Valley), Billy, the lone occupant of a table in an otherwise packed restaurant, is speaking to a couple of tourists he has invited to join him: “Impressive, eh? But you can tell from what I’ve been blabbing that appearances around here can be deceiving. It may look like wonderland, but –” His side of the conversation is all the reader is privy to; the questions, comments and reactions of the others are implied by his responses, heightening the tension and instability as his character is further revealed.
Fiction writer, poet, and essayist Wayman engages with various stances, slopes, and uneven terrain in these stories: his characters are constantly at risk of falling off roofs, into graves – or falling over dead. Rife with conflict, the superbly paced stories are peopled with outliers, eccentrics, hippies, loggers, miners, environmentalists, teachers, landlords, lawyers, and no end of marijuana growers. The latter group comprise “an industry that, according to many impartial sources, is the main economic generator for the region, surpassing in revenue lumber, mining, and smelting combined, and bigger than health care and all other government employment.” So says a supplier of grow-op equipment to a roomful of growers, before trying to persuade them to branch out into coffee.
Wayman’s richly textured and tightly structured stories are steeped in history. Take the first part of “The Three Jimmys,” a three-part story that traces the rise and fall of a motel built, owned, and operated by the eponymous trio. The first Jimmy, talking about the Japanese-Canadian internment camps, says, “Stories started to circulate about the government having failed to plan ahead, so whole families were shivering out the winter in tents.” The Doukhobors, he states, were the first to offer help: “Being shipped over here from Russia, the Douks knew what it was like to lose everything and be forced to leave home by a government.”
Elaine, a Vietnam War resister from Santa Cruz who narrates the story’s second part, came to Canada by choice, hoping for a safer and more stable life for her children. Once settled in the valley, her husband, indulging in drugs and “free love,” heads off to live in a commune, leaving her to provide for the children in the valley, where jobs are scarce. She eventually moves in with one of the Jimmys, a veteran of the Korean War. Elaine ultimately comes between the Jimmys, on the level of both content and form.
There is nothing safe about these stories. Linked by the ever-present waft of pot, recurring shady characters, and the setting itself, these stories resemble a close-knit community. Shifting in response to internal and external forces, the Slocan Valley and its inhabitants – wholly realized under Wayman’s deft touch – feel simultaneously alive and vulnerable.
Reviewer: Brenda Schmidt
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
Page Count: 312 pp
Republished from Quill and Quire, Issue Date: December 2015
. . .
The Shadows We Mistake For Love (2015)
Winnipeg Free Press
Stories set in Kootenays deliver universal experience
Reviewed by: Jess Woolford
Posted: 11/14/2015 3:00 AM
Among other things, award-winning British Columbia writer Tom Wayman is a poet (his poem Did I Miss Anything? is a must-read), essayist, academic, playwright, editor and author of short fiction, and it’s this diversity of experience that he brings to his second collection of short stories, The Shadows We Mistake for Love.
Set in the West Kootenays, where Wayman has lived since 1989, the stories work together to provide a vivid picture of life in rural B.C. While Wayman speaks of the beauty of the land and its power, so strong that it seems “a hidden, enchanted place… a magical hideaway,” he delves deep into the complicated realities of the diverse lives lived there.
A keen observer, Wayman employs empathy and imagination to try on a range of voices and perspectives. He begins with “the man,” a woodworker featured in the opening story Dwelling, whose home and shop are mysteriously invaded by the seasons and who marvels that “in the space of less than a year, he could accept the unfathomable.”
Wayman ends his collection with Fenris, a story that relates the appearance of a wolf who tells the man “I am the devourer of the sun and moon. After so many years, the space between you and me is thin.” As in Dwelling, the tale contemplates what it means to be worthwhile, as well as tangling with loneliness, sanity, disorientation and the inevitability of death.
In between, Wayman introduces us to a community’s worth of characters: an elderly landlord who takes matters into his own hands when he discovers a tenant growing marijuana; a lawyer who approaches the world in the same calculated manner he employs in the courtroom; a dangerous survivalist who poses as a Rastafarian to better know his enemy in the coming “race war”; a grandfather whose work story has a complicated moral; and a boyfriend whose devotion is tested when his girlfriend’s father dies and she collapses in the graveyard, where “Surrounding him were acres of the frozen dead, and not one could help him.”
Though immensely lovely, Wayman’s world is a complicated, often surprising place, a theme that runs through the title story, which begins, “Just because a story is old, doesn’t mean it can’t be sad.” Assuredly this is an old story: girl meets boy, girl follows boy and moulds her life to fit his, girl becomes pregnant, boy abandons girl and baby. However, Wayman’s remarkable perception of what it is to be a young woman trying to find her place and purpose in the world, and his astonishing description of labour, reinvigorates the old story and speaks of the author’s devotion to transmitting others’ realities. Unfortunately its sitcom-style ending disappoints, but this is a rare misstep.
Despite its B.C. setting, The Shadows We Mistake for Love invites in readers from other geographies with its emphasis on our common experience of jobs done and jobs lost, loneliness and love and sex and break-ups, strife between generations, a shared history that includes the rise of the logging and marijuana industries and the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, and our utter reliance on clean water. It doesn’t hurt that Wayman also mentions Winnipeg and St. Boniface more than once.
What’s more, the talk in Wayman’s fictional post office is the same as it is everywhere: “It’s like there’s an epidemic of breast cancer around here. There’s Judy Johnson, lives on Appledale Lower Road, and Dorothy Leaside by the community hall and Betsy Russell who has that hair salon on Hoodikoff Road.”
The Shadows We Mistake for Love is a strong, engaging collection, and Wayman a meticulous, gifted crafter of words who describes the gamut of human experience, from the sacred to the profane, with passion and grace.
Jess Woolford reads and writes in Winnipeg, and sometimes in British Columbia.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 14, 2015 A1
The Shadows We Mistake for Love: Stories
By Tom Wayman
Douglas & McIntyre, 312 pages, $25
. . .
Dirty Snow (2012)
The Chronicle Herald – Jan. 10, 2015
Collections offer important voices on war, by George Elliott Clarke, excerpt
Tom Wayman’s 18th book of poetry, Dirty Snow (Harbour, $17), appeared in March 2012 and won the 2013 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry. I’m late in reading it, but his unapologetically political poetry merits attention.
In his Ode on a Grecian Urn (1819), poet John Keats opines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”
But what if “beauty” means “speaking truth to power”?
This task is what Wayman undertakes in Dirty Snow. He shows that the Afghan War is not — was not — a benign mission in an irrelevant nation, but rather an active slaughter, in which Canadians have helped slay other people, many “innocent” — on behalf of other Canadians.
Wayman reminds us the war is not —was not — peripheral to our lives: “the war has seized / your interest and some of the capital, too, / from your taxes not spent / on medical equipment, road repaving, / housing for the poor, libraries.”
Thus, Wayman imagines, not bombs being dropped on the Afghan people, but Canadian schools: “A dropped school falls through air, / turning slowly as debris / pours from windows: a contrail of papers and books.”
The image informs us that dollars that could have spent on enriching the lives of Canadians have instead been used to kill Afghans.
Not even British Columbians are safe from the expenditure and human cost of the Afghan adventure: “In the serenity / above the treeline / a spreading stain bleaches half the sky. / To the south, amid dim cloud-mounds, / are flashes of light: detonations / of an improvised / innocence.”
I’m reminded of Dennis Lee’s important sequence of poems, Civil Elegies (1972), which raised questions about Canadian independence in relation to the “American Empire.”
Wayman expresses similar concern. At the end of the patriotic ceremony for the repatriation of our dead, his speaker sees “the assigned detachments / bear the dead, the flag / of their country, the country itself / into the yawning dark.”
The implications here are horrendous: For what real purpose have Canadians killed Afghans or themselves died in Afghanistan? Has Canada itself been degraded?
The problem with representing political truth is that it’s painful. Why have we wasted millions of dollars — and dozens of Canadian lives — to help prop up a government whose only legitimacy is in vending terrorist-financing opium and illegal heroin?
Wayman’s politics aren’t always blunt. Wasps and the Fires is a nature poem: “The year brain and blood failed … / small honeycombs of mud wasps / and the grey paper balloons of their kin / appeared in unusual numbers under eave soffits … / The yard swarmed / with dozens of the small yellow threats.”
The politics of fear, of invasion, of scourge is there — but between the lines. “Smell of smoke in the bedroom in the dark.”
Recently, the great philosopher John Ralston Saul wondered, in an op-ed piece, why Canadian intellectuals — especially professors — haven’t been more outspoken against the perceived wrongs of the Harper Republicans (“Conservatives”).
He’s right. But poets like Wayman are offering those essential critiques — for those with ears to hear and eyes to see. Dirty Snow brings the Truth.
. . .
Winter’s Skin (2013) and Dirty Snow (2012)
Wayman in Winter
Tom Wayman (Author)
Winter’s Skin. Oolichan Books
Tom Wayman (Author)
Dirty Snow. Harbour Publishing
Reviewed by Owen Percy
Of all the recognitions and awards that Tom Wayman’s poetry has garnered since he began publishing in 1973, none have been more appropriate or meaningful than the 2013 Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry he recently received for Dirty Snow. Wayman has always striven to be a poet of and for the 99%. Those who have seen him read, or who have encountered any work from his 19 books of poetry, know already that his everyman voice is accessible and direct—qualities which often see him dismissed by reviewers as uncomplicated and, under the logic of most postmodern literary criticism dictating that obscurity = maturity, unimportant. Critics who go after Wayman for his prosaic syntax, or for his simplification of labour politics—there are almost always clear lines drawn in a Wayman poem—often also ignore or disregard his clearly stated figuration of poetry as an ever-expanding globe of possibility and connection of and for one another, a more democratic space as it is in the world of music. Under Wayman’s generic conception, criticizing him for his plainspoken style or his blue-collar poetics is akin to criticizing Jay-Z for not writing good country ballads. And yes, Wayman is Jay-Z in this scenario. You’re welcome.
So when Dirty Snow was named the winner of the Acorn-Plantos prize, it was apt recognition of Wayman’s fine book, but also of his long-standing ethos that poetry can and should be, as he put it in a 2009 interview with Diane Guichon, “a tool useful for beneficial social ends.” Dirty Snow, it can be surmised then, wants us to consider what it actually meant that Canada became embroiled in the post-9/11 Afghan war. The opening section of the book, “The Effect of the Afghan War on the Landscapes and People of Southeastern British Columbia” explores, well, it’s right there in the title. Poems like “Interest” and “There Is No War, And You Would Not Have to Consider It If There Was” directly challenge Wayman’s local, regional, and national neighbours to assess their complicity in Canada’s foreign exploits. The standouts in this arresting section are “Air Support,” in which the military term itself is literalized so that schools, health care, and compassion, not bombs, are showered on the Afghan people, and “Mt. Gimli Pashtun,” where a hiker’s Kootenay mountain landscape spectrally becomes that of “Pashtuns blown apart, or maimed / by bullets released in the name of this country.” By the time the poem declares “[a]n alien death has been brought / to these mountains,” we are ourselves shell-shocked—suddenly uncertain of our own surroundings, culture, otherness, and complicity in acts of institutional aggression.
The book also contains several tender elegies for friends, and an aging speaker’s meditations on the minutia of our everyday lives. But even in his retirement from teaching, Wayman remains a work poet. Poems like “If You’re Not Free at Work, Where Are You Free?,” and the especially poignant “Whistle” give us a Wayman whose world since the 1960s has started to repeat its corporate and political sins, and whose calls for social justice and freedom remain as loud as they’ve been for four decades. The latter poem applies the conceit of “a slight wheezy sound” that begins “[a]t the threshold of hearing” and permeates scenes of mass corporate firings, bullshit press conferences, meetings, and protests, growing louder all the while until it erupts and becomes the soundtrack—“the tinnitus of the world”—of the so-called Arab Spring, and all the revolutions yet to come elsewhere in the world.
Like in some of his earliest books, the poems here are introduced by short contextual prose pieces that evoke the casual familiarity of Wayman’s live readings. The collection also includes rare flashes of the well-established Wayman sense of humor (see “Leonard Cohen Didn’t Get Me Laid”), but its concerns are more with making us think than making us laugh. Dirty Snow is deserving of its accolades, and it deserves a wide readership of citizens. For all our sakes.
Wayman’s most recent book, Winter’s Skin, evokes another recognizably CanLit conceit through the observations of the nature-navigating speaker. A project “in honor of [his] conceptually oriented colleagues” at the University of Calgary (Wayman retired in 2010), Winter’s Skin is comprised of 25 poems that riff on lines, images, or concepts from Pablo Neruda’s posthumous 1974 collection Jardin de invierno. Dotted with stark, stunning landscape photographs of southeastern BC by Jeremy Addington and Rod Currie, the book’s physical beauty seems a direct answer to the anxious questions many of us continue to ask about the vagaries of digital publishing. The poems themselves strike an introspective and personal intimacy in their delicacy of perception; they are concrete and nuanced in a way that much of Wayman’s other poetic writing is not. Consider the haiku sensibility of the first two sections of “Breath”:
Tufts of snow
that rise from the branch
a chickadee alights on
Winter fog surrounding
the house: on the frosted slope of
the ridge behind, great spruce and pine
blur to white shadows
Ol’ Wayman is still in these poems, in both voice and persona, but he is more contemplative, less anxious than he has been, even in the book’s slower, more measured burns against injustice and death (especially in the excellent “The White Dogs”); Winter’s Skin is Wayman in the beginnings of his own winter—asking “only / to take the minutes // of the meetings between the season / and [him]self,” and exulting in the solitude and reckoning of the ever-falling snow. This is not to say that Winter’s Skin is tame, or uninterested in politics, literary or otherwise. Wayman’s preface to the collection characterizes the book’s tone as quietly elegiac, but in general it is vintage Wayman: engaged, observant, prickly, lusty, and open to what the world, and the newly arrived winter, have to teach us about ourselves. Both Dirty Snow and Winter’s Skin renew the call for closer consideration of Wayman’s verse; true, these books set their own terms, but they do so in hopes of showing us that we are intimately and inextricably tied to one another in our mutual experience of and conversation about the living world.
This review originally appeared in Tracking CanLit. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 220 (Spring 2014): 185-186.
. . .
Dirty Snow (2012)
Vancouver Weekly – Oct. 26, 2012
A Poetic Call to Action by Chris Shalom
Dirty Snow by Tom Wayman – A Review.
Dirty Snow is a reminder of where poetry should be: at the forefront of political thought, drawing the connections that help us to deeply consider our relationship to the actions of our country and the world around us. Tracing the lines between life at home and war abroad, the collection explores the murders committed and deaths suffered by Canadian troops during our military involvement in Afghanistan. Primarily though, it’s concerned with the connections we’d rather not draw – the ways Canadian war affects us personally, and, perhaps most unsettling, the ways that it doesn’t.
A confession first: I grew up in the Slocan Valley, where the majority of the collection is set. You’ll pardon the pun (it’s too obvious to resist, and how often does one get to use a dead metaphor with genuine accuracy?), but the imagery of the Valley through the seasons hits home for me in a way that it can’t possibly for all.
So when Tom Wayman writes of cows grazing at Lebahdo Flats, for example, I know the exact cows he means. An interesting dynamic – I can’t say the same for the the hedge-rows of Tintern Abbey.
The particular closeness to the work that this affords me though, only strengthens the burden of its message. The poems are not shrill or condemning, but they are demanding. Snow is filled with pieces that make connections we haven’t made ourselves, not because they’re not evident, but because they are exhausting. To accept Wayman’s work as accurate is likely to accept oneself as guilty of inaction; perhaps it is easier to accept oneself as guilty of non-consideration.
There Is No War, And You Would Not Have To Consider It If There Was, one of my favourites in the collection, covers it all: the cost of war, money used to kill in another country rather than to create a better life in ours, the homogenized and ignorant Western depictions of Afghans, the deaths of innocent and violent alike, on both sides; above all, the absurdity of our attempts at justification, when explicitly stated and considered as though logical. The poem reminds us with a straight face that the “[a]rmed individuals on the opposing side, you see…have no right to intervene in/Afghanistan’s domestic affairs,/are determined to impose by force/a set of alien values…” The effectiveness of this kind of plain-faced satire-by-restatement is funny only because it is appalling. One wonders how many lines of televised argument and how many public personalities in today’s political sphere would be reduced to laughable self-satire by similar treatment.
Provocative as it is, the strength of Dirty Snow is that it is not prescriptive. As with There Is No War…, the collection at large may decry inaction, but its call is for any action, regardless of direction – as with all poetry, the intent is to reintegrate us with the surrounding world. If the poems push, it is with the expectation of being pushed back. If the poems are loud, it is because the problem is silence.
The engine that drives Dirty Snow is fueled with grief, not anger. If there is hope for a lessening of the world’s violence, Wayman seems to see it in personal grief, a story that transcends any boundaries that humans have managed to build for themselves. The second half of the collection is focused on loss and the many ways in which it is utterly irrevocable. Richard Meissenheimer is a tender part of a community’s grief, an admission of the hole that death leaves in a community; For L.C. is a wryly unsettling look at Wayman’s own sense of mortality, just the sort of thing we’d rather not write down ourselves. The second half of Snow is filled with the lucid heartbreak, tempered by the redemptive certainty in the ineffable, that can be found in much of Wayman’s later work.
Dirty Snow is a rousing argument for the return of poetry in mainstream cultural consciousness. Modern poetry seems often guilty of relegating itself to exploration of the beautiful, the abstract, the attractively melancholy – the topics that unfortunately, but somewhat justifiably, have characterized it in the mainstream as impressive but irrelevant. Instead of sauntering whimsically behind us, Dirty Snow is precisely where poetry should be – charging head-on past us and demanding that we keep up. Fiery, melancholic, and accessible, Wayman’s collection is a much-needed two-part challenge: to read more poetry, and to act on it.
. . .
Boundary Country (2007), A Vain Thing (2007), Woodstock Rising (2009).
On the Way with Wayman
• Tom Wayman (Author)
A Vain Thing. Turnstone Press
• Tom Wayman (Author)
Boundary Country. Thistledown Press
• Tom Wayman (Author)
Woodstock Rising. Dundurn
Reviewed by Neil Querengesser
Long recognized as an accomplished Canadian poet and shortlisted for a Governor General’s award in poetry, Tom Wayman turns his hand to prose in these three works of fiction, ranging from short pieces to a full-length novel. Although the results are sometimes uneven, Wayman has established himself as a significant figure in his recently adopted genre.
Boundary Country, his first published book of fiction, is a collection of short stories, many of which are set in British Columbia’s southern and interior regions, the geography of which is clearly familiar to Wayman and rendered with impressive verisimilitude. They include a story of an owner of a salon chain who picks up a hitchhiker with a shady past east of Osoyoos , an imaginative account of a visit by Sir Paul McCartney to a gathering of assorted Nelson citizens, and a bittersweet tale of a divorced man helping friends move a horse to winter pastures as he meditates on his failed attempt to begin a new relationship. Other stories move further afield in time and place, including an account of a family of Russian and European Jews trying to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the 1930s, and a speculative piece featuring an imaginary relative of Alfred Nobel who demonstrates to a lieutenant in the American Civil War the power of his cousin’s new invention. All the stories in this collection are notable for the authenticity of their narrators and point of view, the tone of each narrative perfectly matching its narrator’s personality.
A Vain Thing, Wayman’s second book of fiction, consists of four novellas, all of them ostensible variations on the title’s central theme of (national) vanity. Wayman’s penchant for speculative fiction, already evident in Boundary Country, is even more pronounced in this collection. The first novella, Djkarta Now, set in perhaps only a slightly imaginary future, is told from the point of view of a racist political candidate in Vancouver, leader of the Democracy Now party, a thinly disguised front for the racist Djkarta Now organization that wants to oust all recent Chinese immigrants from the province. Wayman skilfully manipulates exterior dialogue and interior monologue to eventually reveal the narrator’s true colours and his hypocrisy. The Rock Eaters tells the tale of mineral-eating, Winnebago-travelling aliens in the shape of wheat stalks who have made Earth a favourite tourist destination. The hero of this piece must risk his life to save some of these aliens when they are trapped inside a burning restaurant. Thanks to Wayman’s mastery of the point of view and setting, it is actually not too difficult to willingly suspend one’s disbelief while reading this wry satire on xenophobia. In Land under the Snow, a cross-country skier in the Okanagan falls through a mountain snowdrift into the life and customs of an old middle-earth Nordic village, meeting the love of his life and learning much about himself in the process, only to be turned in another direction just as things start to go well for him. The finest and most realistic novella is Love in the Afterlife, an acerbic look at life and love from the perspective of an emotionally insecure grant-winning Vancouverite writer who takes up with a new girlfriend and other squirrely characters in the Toronto literary scene. Whether or not this is a roman à clef, it is nevertheless lively and delightful satire, distinguished, despite the overt symbolism, by one of Wayman’s better endings.
Woodstock Rising, Wayman’s first full-length novel, is an over-the-top labour of love narrated by a young man in his twenties with the quasi-autobiographical first name of Wayman, struggling to meet his thesis supervisor’s demands for a completed product in the fourth and final year of his somewhat postponed Master’s program at UC Irvine in the politically and culturally explosive academic year of 1969-1970. But his thesis certainly isn’t the only thing he has to contend with. The lone Canadian in his group of friends and acquaintances, Wayman is attracted to several of his fellow female students, particularly Nora, with whom he eventually establishes the novel’s central romantic relationship. He is an active member of the Students for a Democratic Society, as well as a member of a small idealistic circle, including a couple of disillusioned Vietnam vets, that decides, after prolonged conversation and several shared joints, to launch a decommissioned nuclear missile, replacing its deadly payload with a jerry-built satellite broadcasting songs from the recent and wildly successful festival at Woodstock. After pulling off this rather implausible feat, much to the chagrin of the current president, Richard Milhous Nixon, they soon desire even bigger and better ways of making an anonymous name for themselves, planning a sequel to Woodstock so big and so bright that they will have to wear shades. Despite all the suspense and the realistic build-up, however, the novel’s climax and its denouement, characteristic weak points in Wayman’s fiction, are a bit of a letdown. Nevertheless, this novel is certainly worth reading. As usual, the voice of the young narrator is impeccably realized. If the narrative sometimes sprawls a bit over the book’s almost five hundred pages, it can be attributed to the narrator’s enthusiastic desire to create a detailed chronicle of his personal annus mirablis at the centre of some of the most culturally significant events in America. The pages are replete with realistic historical details of American struggles over Vietnam, class, and race, mirrored in the sectarian conflicts within the SDS. The various tribulations and triumphs of Southern California campus life in the late 1960s are vividly recreated, and abundant quotations from popular songs of the time give a compelling picture of a remarkable era. Part satire, part serious cultural chronicle, and part wish-fulfillment fantasy, Woodstock Rising is an enjoyable and insightful novel. It will resonate particularly with those readers who lived through the turbulent times of the late 1960s—especially those who missed out on the original Woodstock.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #207 (Winter 2010). (pg. 181-183)
. . .
Boundary Country (2007)
Globe and Mail
July 7, 2007
By Tom Wayman
272 pages, $18.95
Print Edition – Section Front
Prize-winning B.C. poet Tom Wayman has a clear affection for the wild country of Canada’s West. This collection of stories opens strongly with a man on a mountain highway, and descriptive prose that puts in mind the rhythms and precision of Cormac McCarthy.
But where McCarthy’s barren U.S. Southwest landscapes evoke nature’s inhuman indifference, Wayman’s warm portrait of B.C.’s forested Kootenay region seems as much inside his character as out. Wayman gives us nature in the eyes of a man who knows it like his own skin.
The unnamed motorist in Boundary Country stops on a remote stretch of road to pick up an elderly hitchhiker. The old Doukhobor is far from chatty, but when our narrator asks what he might know about an abandoned group of shacks by the highway, he suddenly launches into a garbled and indignant monologue.
The tale, unfolding with the roll and twist of the road, launches the book’s recurring theme of social boundaries and their transgression.
The Ring is far from Wagnerian. A compact chamber piece of shifting light and shadow, it opens and closes on (and in) a crystalline mountain river with two men and the woman they love.
Wayman’s writerly smarts are almost invisible here. Even when Jungian archetypes explicitly enter the narrative, linking the twin surges of river and desire, the symbolism is aptly bound up with the logic of plot and character. The story resolves in the best sort of way: in the reader’s mind, a few seconds after the closing sentence.
In Winter Pasture, a man accompanies two friends as they transport an old mare to winter grazing grounds. Here, Wayman’s linking of theme and setting is less successful. Stephen is mourning the end of an intense relationship. When we’re told in the final paragraphs that the love he shared with Ellen is now “cut loose as if into a field, and abandoned,” the image of the old horse receding into empty meadowland loses its subtle power at the hands of Wayman’s explication.
Ducks in a Row presents Bill, an art-college administrator whose professional goal and pet flog is to keep arty types out of la-la land unless they’re actually making art.
Wayman takes this character point a bit further than necessary: Do we really need Bill hectoring us for a page and a half on why agenda handouts must be distributed at meetings?
He’s more succinct on the way public meetings can quickly turn from edifying to chaotic: “the air leaks out of the sanity balloon. Troublesome folks awaken. … It’s weirdo time.”
After 20 pages of Bill’s bureaucratic peeves mixed with some nostalgic 1960s flashbacks, the story comes alive with the set piece promised in the first sentence. Sir Paul McCartney comes to town as part of a Canadian tour to solicit opinions on a new solo album. The weirdos, blathering before their pop idol, save the day.
In The Freelance Demolitionist, the U.S. Civil War is the vivid backdrop for an arresting parable of the science of weaponry and how it reliably leads us by the nose toward ever-greater atrocities.
Next up, we follow the mixed fortunes of a Jewish family in the 1930s as they flee persecution in their Russian village, endure more as they settle with relatives in Vienna, then are forced to move on – the lucky ones to Toronto, others to the horrors of nazism.
Spanning almost four decades, this tale often convinces, but the history feels too tidily condensed, the drama soft-focus.
The Murder is a more engaging Jewish tale. Set in Depression-era Toronto, the plot is enlivened by an unsolved killing from the old country and a witness who holds his secret for 40 years.
Stories with a lighter touch offer an amnesia-inducing restaurant, a petty criminal holed up in a Zen monastery and a woman whose illusory guy-magnet is her beloved arsenal of scented skin products.
Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail’s first-fiction reviewer. His own first novel, Drina Bridge, was published last year.
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