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August 30, 2016

Mister Nightingale, by Paul Bowdring

mister-nightingaleIn my friend Mark Sampson’s review of Paul Bowering’s last novel, the award-winning The Stranger’s Gallery in The Fiddlehead, he wrote, “Bowdring’s prose bursts with such clarity and assuredness that you trust his voice to take you anywhere it wants…” I know this because this excerpt from Mark’s review appears inside the ARC for Bowering’s latest novel, Mister Nightingale, and when I read that line, I thought, “Exactly.” Because while the notion of Bowdring’s novel as a “novelist’s novel” appeals to me—I love his send-up of literary culture, of small press politics, of comradeship and competition between writers, and all of that insider baseball—Mister Nightingale isn’t the kind of book I can manage to get through. And not just because it’s written by a man (she writes, unabashedly wearing her bias on her sleeve), because it’s about a man whose own literary bedrock is so definitively male. It’s all Kafka and his frozen heart, and James Joyce, and Proust, and all those people I’ve never read and never will because so many other people read them already that I don’t have to. Because I don’t trust any writer who doesn’t have a single literary foremother, or at least ten of them, and Bowdring’s James Nightingale never references one.

And yet, there was something about the narrative. While in most books, the lack of foremothers would be off-putting, I was willing to forgive it of Mister Nightingale. Because of what Mark wrote about the clarity and assuredness of Bowdring’s prose that I trusted enough to follow. Because (and I am not kidding, this is usually a deal breaker for me): in the entire book, there is not a single blowjob (and this is another reason why I tend to avoid books by men. Ubiquitous blowjobs. They go on for paragraphs and paragraphs. It’s really quite unbearable). And because there was this strange and uncanny echo in the novel of Carol Shields’ Unless, and I’m not saying this was anymore than me making weird connections, but they were vivid ones. James Nightingale, like Reta Winters, a semi-successful novelist, belying the ordinary lives and concerns behind the writer’s persona. James’ estranged wife is called Alicia, who plays viola in an orchestra, although in Reta Winters’ fictional novel, her heroine Alicia is engaged to a man who plays trombone in an orchestra, and so the lines aren’t exactly parallel, but still, one reminds me of the other. Mister Nightingale raises the question of unlived lives, as does Unless and also Shields’ The Stone Diaries, James considering the experiences of his neighbour who discovers her freedom and possibilities when her husband dies and her children are grown, and he also considers his own lives, the ones he might have lived, had he made other choices. Both characters also deal with the demands of elderly parents, and the peculiar, tangled nature of relationships with daughters on the cusp of womanhood. In many ways, these books are spiritual siblings. I think they’d get along.

Mister Nightingale begins with James’ return to his native Newfoundland after 30 years away. He’s even missed his own mother’s funeral, but now they’re offering him an honorary degree, and a local press is reissuing his first book. Plus his marriage has ended in Toronto and he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next, so it seems like a good time to return to the scene of the crime. The crime being the small press publisher ripping off James’ friend, the poet, Kevin, who didn’t get paid for sales of his book and who was furious to discover his poetry published in a high school English text and he hadn’t been paid for that either. So naturally, things are going to get more than a bit interesting at James’ book launch (although the date for that event is being postponed over and over again, in absolutely true small press fashion).

But in the meantime, James takes stock of his life, tries to reconnect with his father, encounters ghosts from his past, learns all the ways that Newfoundland has changed and stayed the same in the last three decades, and keeps some tabs on his daughter, who has just started university in St. John’s. He becomes reacquainted with his sister, gets a Newfoundland driver’s licence, partakes in an ill-attended book signing at the local Chapters, and gets drunk on local TV.

All of which is to say that the novel is not terrible plot-driven, but we go there anyway, with pleasure even, for all the reasons recounted above. Mister Nightingale is a smart, funny and absorbing book, and I’m so glad I went along on its journey.

One thought on “Mister Nightingale, by Paul Bowdring”

  1. Mark says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Kerry! I really liked The Strangers’ Gallery, and I, like you, absolutely love Unless, so the parallels you draw are intriguing. I’ll have to check Mr. Nightingale out.

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