People read for different reasons: to learn, to be distracted, to satisfy the too-often-thwarted human craving for meaning by rearranging chaotic reality into intelligible patterns.
Readers hoping for the kind of satisfaction afforded by a resolution - in this case of Children of the Day, Sandra Birdsell's last novel, which was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Award - might be let down by Waiting for Joe. As its title hints, this novel flirts with absurdism; not the tragicomic abstract absurdism of Waiting for Godot, but a bleak, contemporary Prairie absurdism of sodium lights, asphalt, unemployment and the inexorable discovery that, televangelists notwithstanding, God might not have anything special in mind for any of us.
At midlife, Joe Beaudry and his wife, Laurie, have lost everything: Joe's RV dealership, their house, even their responsibility for Joe's 96-year-old father, Alfred. They're living in a stolen trailer in a Walmart parking lot on the outskirts of Regina, trying to save up enough money from odd jobs to reach Fort McMurray, where a long-lost friend might find them work.
Through flashbacks, Birdsell shows us Joe's and Laurie's early lives, crackling with portent. We learn early on that Joe's mother died trying unsuccessfully to prevent Laurie's mother from drowning herself on the day Laurie was born, an event that drove Alfred into grief-stricken paralysis and Joe into the orbit of a charismatic fundamentalist Christian pastor and his wife. As a result of these densely plotted childhoods, Joe and Laurie grow up convinced of their special destinies. After a youth of almost Gothic deprivation, Laurie collects angel knick-knacks and believes that her wishes (for clothes, personal-grooming products and small appliances) are heard by "the universe." Joe feels that every one of his life decisions is dictated by God. Their marriage seems predestined, their prosperity underwritten by a benevolent higher power.
But after 9/11, demand for recreational vehicles dries up. When the recession hits, Joe loses his business and then the house; he's forced to put Alfred in a home. He steals an RV from his own lot and winds up stranded at the aforementioned Walmart, where Laurie's conviction that shopping is a way of reaching out to a higher power proves fiscally disastrous, and Joe abandons her in disgust and takes off hitchhiking.
As Joe leaves Laurie behind, their tight-knit world of meaningful coincidence unravels. In retrospect, the parts of their lives that seemed fated turn out to be contingent. In the face of their misfortunes and those of others Joe encounters, his religious convictions are radically revised, if not abandoned.
As Joe's faith unravels, however, so does Waiting for Joe's plot. As his world opens up, themes proliferate - sexual abuse, immigration, consumerism - and are just as quickly dropped. On one hand, this underlines the point that a simple narrative of destiny and benevolent governance can't stand up to the complexity - and unfairness - of reality; on the other hand, the story becomes frustratingly busy and perfunctory, as Joe abandons the relationships that readers have become invested in before they've reached a meaningful conclusion, replacing them with almost cartoonish vignettes of other people's suffering. Joe's choices become haphazard and disposable, as though by rejecting the notion of a grand design, he can no longer follow through on any plans at all.
This is unsatisfying, but it makes a kind of thematic sense. Less forgivable are the handful of plot devices that aren't so much absurd as just unrealistic. It's a testament to Birdsell's storytelling skill that Laurie's stunning irresponsibility is believable at all. But even Birdsell's intermittently hypnotic prose can't justify the glaring, unnecessary deus ex machina that rescues Laurie toward the book's end.
It's not all bad. As fans of Birdsell's earlier novels know, her writing can be immersive, sensual, transparent. At her best - when she's describing Joe's prepubescent religious conversion in all its seedy, sincere glory, for example - she's clearly still got it.
And then, not everybody reads fiction to compensate for the chaos of real life. For readers who read in order to try on another person's consciousness, there are rewards to be had here. Birdsell inclines us to judge Laurie's foolishness and Joe's insensitivity, then plunges us headlong into their sensory worlds, their human vulnerability. We may not like them, but in the book's best passages we can't help but understand them and experience their disillusionment and helplessness as though they were our own; that's something worth reading for.
Wendy Banks reads constantly, for reasons that don't bear much scrutiny.