Review of The Ravine by Paul Quarrington
by Paul Quarrington
This is my first Paul Quarrington book, but after reading it, I will definitely read more of his work. His writing reminds me of Douglas Coupland, only with a slightly more Ontario flair. As a resident of Thunder Bay, I smiled at the few scenes set there. It's nice reading fiction by Canadian authors set in Canada.
The last book that I read, The Mistress of the Sun, had a great beginning but a lacklustre ending. The Ravine is the opposite: I wasn't too impressed by the beginning, but by the time I read the last page, the book had me hooked. I was utterly committed to reading about the life of one Phil McQuigge.
Quarrington got away with writing a novel that is intentionally bad and self-referential: the novel is written from the point of view of Phil, who is writing an autobiographical novel. These sorts of books spring up every so often, but it's very hard to do it well. Quarrington manages that--I admit I was sceptical at first, but it really improves once you get to know Phil.
The eponymous incident is a fulcrum on which the rest of the book's events rest. Phil refers back to it constantly; indeed, the climax of the book occurs after the culmination of a search for answers about the incident in the ravine. In addition, Phil always brings up a movie, The Bullet and the Cross, in which one of the characters makes a noble self-sacrifice in order to save the day. The climax of the book builds toward a recreation of the incident in the ravine, and through it, Phil experiences a catharsis.
I love authors like Coupland and Quarrington, because their characters are people. They don't write contrived plot devices who have flimsy motivations. Their characters get into the same absurd, melodramatic situations that we experience in real life. Quarrington is talented at making minor characters come alive in a couple of paragraphs. Characters who drift in and out of the story, like Rainie van der Glick, are like a television picture slowly coming into focus.
Phil, self-described as "formerly of the television business," compares his life to TV. Many of us seek this comparison. Do we live in a sitcom, a soap opera, a procedural? What sort of entertainment milieu do we occupy? After all, is not the reason TV fascinates us because it mirrors our own lives, our problems and flaws? It is a mechanism, a means of escape into another dimension, as Phil's hero Rod Serling maintains. But escape from what?
Our own lives are a fiction that we create, although at times we feel as if we have no control. Television offers an escape from that fiction. But just as a novel within a novel is self-referential, so to is TV to real life. In the end, the only way you can get over your "ravine" incident is to seize control.
The Ravine is a powerful character-driven novel full of wit. It's a fun light read, but it also holds essential truths about life. Some of the style is uncharacteristic, but the quality of Quarrington's quips and the development of Phil McQuigge makes this uncharacteristic style worthwhile. This is not about saving the world from terrorists; it's just one man trying to sort out his screwed up life. Most people, at some point or another, can relate to that.