As plot elements go, space travel and public relations make an unusual combo. But Terry Fallis pulls it off in Up and Down, a breezy, gentle satire that also finds room for a decades-old mystery, siblings struggling with the slow death of a parent, and a few more fillips that embroider the yarn without tying it in knots.
In his previous job, narrator David Stewart (as with the author) toiled in the precincts of Parliament, running media relations for the minister of science and technology. Now, he’s a rookie at the Toronto branch of U.S.-based public-relations firm Turner King, which is competing for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration account.
Forty years after the moon landing, the public’s love affair with space exploration has dulled to the point where most people would rather clean the fridge than watch a shuttle launch. NASA is looking for a way to recapture the old magic and Stewart thinks he has it: a continental contest to send a pair of “ordinary citizens” into space – one each from Canada and the United States.
This amiable conceit is the hook on which Fallis hangs his lighthearted plot involving slamming doors, vaudeville turns, plot twists and a lot of goodnatured badinage. There are overly familiar tropes, such as the blowhard boss of the Turner King Washington office, who traffics in condescending clichés about Canadians. But there is also Landon Percival, a vivid and dazzling character who dominates the book. She’s a geriatric bush pilot and self-trained astronaut (and if that sounds outlandish, Google “Jerrie Cobb”) determined to land a spot in the shuttle.
When he’s not falling down, throwing up or banging into things, Stewart takes up her cause with wit and cunning. Along the way, there are digs at the worlds of politics and PR, but these are more goodnatured than edgy.
Sometimes the humour can be forced, as with Stewart’s physical clumsiness, a characteristic he shares with the protagonist of Fallis’s previous novels, including The Best Laid Plans, which won the Leacock Award in 2008 and CBC’s Canada Reads showdown in 2011.
Tripping, spilling and falling might work for Charlie Chaplin or the Three Stooges, but on the page it palls. Ditto for Stewart’s penchant for imagining dramatic or funny lines or actions, then deciding against them. “I thought about upending Amanda’s prized chair, hurling it through the plate glass window, and then following it out, but that would have been a bit over the top.”
He also thinks about sliding the length of a shiny boardroom table, but decides that wouldn’t be sensible. He thinks of snappy rejoinders to the Yankee blowhard, but stifles them. A little of that goes a long way, and its absence would go even further.
There’s also a touch of leaden preachiness here and there. “I hate when people use the word ‘tolerant’ to describe how enlightened they are about gays and lesbians. It would never be acceptable to say that someone is ‘tolerant’ of women, or blacks, or Roman Catholics.”
Er, yes, quite. But who still uses “tolerant” to describe themselves in that context? Why, the blowhard American in the story, of course. But Fallis, like his hero, picks himself up after these stumbles and recovers his light touch. He also displays formidable chops when it comes to narrative pacing, wrangling subplots, balancing comedy and pathos and generally moving things along in a sprightly and entertaining fashion. Cartoonish villain aside, most of the supporting characters are nimbly sketched.
Up and Down is a fine specimen of what is too often dismissed as “easy reading,” which is seldom easy writing. Fallis will never be nominated for a Giller or GG on the strength of such books, but he might have a shot at another Leacock.
Shane McCune is an earthbound freelance writer living in Comox, B.C.