If you take the heart of The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, the lungs from Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and the brain of Liam Durcan's Garcia's Heart, you might end up with a body that resembles Nicholas Ruddock's The Parabolist.
The novel, set in Toronto in the mid-1970s, twists around on a group of medical students who are taking a literature class taught by Roberto Moreno, a young poet who has recently moved from Mexico City. The story rolls together a disparate cast of characters, two brothers, a teen runaway, a radical feminist poet, a specialist in French idioms, a sexually deviant psychiatric resident and a cadaver, to name a few. At the heart of the narrative is a rainy night. A woman is raped along a dark edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park. The story follows a heroic intervention and an investigation to the climax.
The book is satirical, violent and sometimes touching. The scenes are tightly staged; the opening involves a character slathering himself in Crisco shortening and squeezing through a mailbox and falling "on the driveway like a newborn." Medical students, dissecting cadavers, stand around like "white crows on road kill." These medical images come naturally to Ruddock, a family physician from Guelph, Ont., but he is well versed in other disciplines. The text is peppered with references to Canadian writers; along the way, we get to meet a young Gwendolyn MacEwen and to steal a volume of Dennis Lee's poetry.
The only misstep in the novel is that the dramatic ending feels almost clinical. While it is a skillful stitching together of all the strands of the story, the scenes are reported in retrospect, as if the reader is observing a complex procedure. There is violence, stabbing, blood and grief, but we watch the events only in a detached way. We don't really get to feel them.
Like Bolaño, Ruddock brings a passion for poetry from Mexico City. Roberto, the teacher, is a catalyst for others; he focuses "the heat of the sun through a magnifying glass upon the palm of your hand."
Like Lam, Ruddock uses professional insights to great effect. The detailed description of an anatomy class dissecting a cadaver runs the length of the novel. This allows the author to explore the relationship between our mind and body. Even though we have ideas and reasons, our deepest urges are "driven by our biology."
Like Montreal neurologist Durcan, Ruddock is a smart and literary writer. It isn't just the medical profession they share: It's the urge to explain the human condition by reaching past our biology into the realm of literature for answers.
This is not to say the book is derivative. Quite the opposite. These comparisons are compliments of the highest order. With his first full-length novel, Ruddock, whose past work includes a clutch of short stories, one of which was published in the Journey Prize Anthology in 2007, proves he is worthy of such company. The Parabolist has a strong pulse that will keep your heart beating until the end.
Claire Cameron's first novel, The Line Painter, was nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award.