31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 1: “Tick Tock” by Guy Vanderhaeghe

May 1, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From Daddy Lenin and Other Stories

Daddy_Lenin_Guy_VanderhaegheCharley Brewster has a problem with his hands. They hurt, a pain that is agonizing and incessant. Some four decades ago, the volatile young man was something of a brawler, courting fights that landed him with five fractures to the bones in his hands. The last of these scraps ended with his antagonist suffering a fractured orbital bone and Brewster being sent to jail for two years less a day.

Older and putatively wiser, Brewster, now an assistant professor of English, has not been bothered by discomfort in his hands for forty years. The onset of his recent affliction, “a dull, background ache … lodged in the bones of his hand, broken by sudden bursts of acute, electric pain,” coincides with the arrival of a new couple to the apartment next door to his.

The first encounter with this couple occurs outside the building, as the two are unloading a U-Haul truck piled with furniture. The woman is a “waif-like bit of a girl,” with “a despairing, hopeless look” on her face and “enormous brown eyes swimming with tears.” The man is a giant, possessed of “a grotesquely swollen torso and a massive column of neck that tapered into a shaved head like the nose cone of a missile.”

It becomes clear in short order that the couple, Melvyn and Dina Janacek, are engaged in an abusive relationship, with the husband using his superior strength and imposing physique to threaten and intimidate his wife, and possibly to assault her physically as well. Brewster attempts to intervene, first by involving the police – who are unsympathetic to the plight of what they perceive as a haughty and arrogant academic with his nose out of joint – then, finally and inevitably, in the only way he really knows how: by using his tormented fists.

“Tick Tock” is the best – and, not unimportantly, one of the funniest – stories in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s first collection of short fiction since 1992’s Things as They Are? The author won a 1982 Governor General’s Literary Award for his first book, Man Descending, another collection of stories, but is so well known as the author of the intervening “western trilogy” of novels – The Englishman’s Boy (also a GG winner), The Last Crossing (which won CBC’s Canada Reads competition in 2004), and A Good Man – that these days even Vanderhaeghe himself acknowledges precious few people remember he ever wrote short fiction.

The author of “Tick Tock” is older than the author of the stories in Man Descending, but no less pointed and pugilistic. The story examines postmodern masculinity in all its contradictions and vagaries. Descended from working-class stock, Brewster was launched into his academic career while in prison for assault, the beneficiary of a program that offers university-level classes to convicts. But he has never been able to entirely divest himself of his roots as a physical scrapper, notwithstanding the toll his advancing years have taken on his body.

Brewster’s conception of masculinity is certainly more straightforward than that of his girlfriend, Eva, chair of the university’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, who uses contrasting videos of Sting and Klaus Nomi to demonstrate to her students “representations of masculinities.” Eva is representative of the kind of postmodern ideologue much in vogue in academia these days; her media-saturated, pop-culture inflected classes score highly on Rate My Professor, whereas Brewster is subjected to borderline illiterate screeds by students who are appalled that he would demand their essays be punctuated properly.

Indeed, Brewster defines himself as a dinosaur (“your department’s sleepwalker” is Eva’s preferred term), and it is no surprise that the careerist Eva is the more successful of the pair. Nor that she is disdainful of Brewster’s own particular representation of masculinity, which she defines as “the bad hegemonic variety.” When in Brewster’s presence, Eva’s “homophobia and misogyny sensors” go off pretty much constantly.

The academic satire in “Tick Tock” is blisteringly funny – especially to dinosaurs like Brewster who still believe that university essays should be punctuated properly – but Vanderhaeghe is more subtle and more nuanced than a brief thumbnail sketch might lead one to believe. It is Eva, after all, who is ultimately effective in separating Dina from her abuser, while Brewster, reduced to his aging and aching fists as his only recourse proves absolutely ineffectual or, to use a more loaded term, impotent. Much of Brewster’s antipathy results from envy at Eva’s success: fifteen years his junior, she has already managed to secure a chair in a department, while he remains stalled at the level of assistant professor, biding his time until he can fade into retirement.

The final scene in the story, with its vaguely masochistic undertones, returns to the conception of masculinity as located in physical power, but inverts it, leaving Brewster subject to the depredations of a goon who, we come to realize, represents a distorted mirror’s image of the protagonist’s own younger self. This doubling motif – which persists throughout the collection – is absolutely appropriate for a story in a book titled Daddy Lenin: Janacek becomes a kind of surrogate son to Brewster, a reminder of the commingled potency and relative simplicity of youth and the diminution that accompanies getting old.

In its shifting ground, its satire, and its incisive probing of male psychology, “Tick Tock” finds its author firing on all cylinders. Readers familiar with Vanderhaeghe only through the western trilogy might be surprised at the author’s facility with a contemporary milieu and characters; fans of Vanderhaeghe’s earlier collections will simply be glad to have him back writing in the form after an extended absence.

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