“…a man in deep waters, just about to go over his head.” —Dave Margoshes, Drowning Man
I believe I’ve found the ‘lost’ Kootenay novel—Dave Margoshes’ 2003 book Drowning Man. This superbly crafted work of literary fiction continually astonishes the reader with its original phrasing and deeply evocative descriptive passages. If Margoshes set out to craft the literary equivalent of the ‘pulp’ novel or noir detective story, then he succeeds brilliantly.
The central character is Sweeny, an aging journalist of the old school you can almost picture with a three-day growth of grey whiskers, sallow cheeks and a slouching fedora pulled over his brow. Or as Margoshes describes him “…the kind of man they’d get Robert Mitchum to play in the movies” as an older man. His alcoholism has bounced him along the bottom of his career and the quote above is among the most apt I’ve ever read to describe this terrible addiction. In a last-ditch effort to keep working long enough to get a pension, Sweeny returns to his hometown of Timber, based rather more than less on Nelson, BC. The dregs of the bottle have taken him from some great highs, working in the newsrooms of Washington, Paris, Toronto and other big city lights to the crashing low of a binge that finds him scraping himself off the floor of a flat in New York City. One wonders how much of this is based on Margoshes’ former career as a journalist.
His descriptions of the Kootenay landscape cradling Nelson in the mountains around the West Arm of Kootenay Lake are spot-on. The author even retains the actual name of the former Queens Hotel, and describes it more or less accurately as the decrepit dive it had become in its final years on Baker Street. There’s an apartment scene that sent chills down my spine it was so like one I lived in on Carbonate Street, on the third floor overlooking Grohman Narrows. The Kootenay setting is complete with a trip into the mountains to a fictional ghost town strongly resembling Sandon. Margoshes visited Nelson some years ago and the ‘Spell of the Kootenay’ with its more graceful pace of life seems to have struck him deeply:
“He headed for the Queens when he left the Coffee Pot, letting spring seep into him. The air here was uncannily clear and sweet after New York, the sounds muffled. People smiled at him on the street, walking slowly, their arms dangling at their sides rather than in the distinctive huddled style of the cities. Sweeny was just beginning now, after two months, to get used to the slower pace.”
Not for Margoshes the stock phrase, the descriptors so shop-worn they’ve become cliché—that graveyard of language where writing goes to die. With a pseudo-noir it would be tempting to fall back on conventions of language developed by the masters of the genre, but to his credit, he chooses to coin his own unique phrases: “A chalk-stroke chill ran down Sweeny’s back.” “Sweeny stood up and July’s hand slipped off his shoulder, leaving him with the sensation of her fingers trailing down his back sleek as a flow of butter into a bowl.” And that’s just on one page!
Pained self-reflection is certainly a hallmark of many noir heroes—or at least, the best ones—and Sweeny fits well in this tradition. This is no mere conceit of genre given that Sweeny is scrabbling to get what may be his last foothold on career before alcohol washes it away. Even catching his reflection in a mirror jolts him from the stupor of routine into sudden lucidity:
“…he was arrested by the reflection in the glass: an old, used-up man with tangled white hair, staring in surprise at something he hadn’t expected. The man was over six feet, with broad shoulders and a sagging middle. Although the man was dressed, Sweeny could see him as if he were naked, the once-powerful chest caving in like the roof of an abandoned mine. …But it was the face that was most striking—a curving, hairless forehead, thinning, almost colourless brows; shallow, watery eyes floating above deeply etched bruise-dark pouches… It was a turtle’s face, not a man’s, the face of a turtle too long in its shell. But there was nothing sheltered about this face: it was both callused and vulnerable, like the life behind it—it had been kicked, sat on, spat on, walked on, ignored, used, watched to bloody death, scraped to death, soaped silly, the life shaved off it. Watched to death, that was what was wrong with it.”
At a time when genre fiction—especially mysteries—has become as ubiquitous as Kleenex and as dominant in publishing as a rhino in his harem, it’s refreshing to read a book at least as concerned with character and scene as with plot and action. Somehow Margoshes manages to keep the tension cranked just high enough that we’re compelled to keep reading. If there is a weakness here, it’s in his plot, which winds you up but then leaves you scratching your head at its rather existential ending. But the language is so exquisite, so enchanting, so utterly absorbing, you read on to the end, not caring what happens so much as how it happens and how it’s rendered. Sweeny’s repeated flashbacks to a pivotal early memory of his boyhood are deeply evocative and often quite moving:
“And why shouldn’t he have hidden? He’d been deserted not once but twice, first by a father he could barely remember, then by the mother who had become the centre of his existence. And then it was as if he had gone directly from that warm sanctuary behind the curtains to the beaten-down grass in front of the old man’s porch where he was getting out of Uncle Tomas’s car, clutching a cardboard suitcase in one hand, a paper sack in the other, and Greta was coming toward him down the steps, going down on her knees and enfolding him in her massive arms, engulfing him in the smell of warm milk. ‘Poor baby, poor baby,’ she kept saying, alternating the expression in Swedish and English. …Uncle Tomas and the car were gone from memory, and Greta was whispering: ‘Come, Grampa is waiting.’
“He was an old man too stiff and bent to even walk across his land, let alone work it, who spent most of his time, even in winter when he bundled up in a grey wool greatcoat and a Hudson’s Bay blanket, rocking on the porch, staring with vacant eyes at the road leading away from the house, as if expecting someone.” It’s one of those epoch-making moments in memory that blaze themselves forever into consciousness, the boy and his grandfather sharing the depths of solitude: “Sitting in silence, smoke from the old man’s pipe blowing blue and fragrant across the porch, the creak of the rockers in the boy’s ears like some vague, foreign music, a melody from far-off Sweden, the two of them together and alone, hushed and still, hanging in space, as if waiting for someone, some thing.”
Situating the novel circa 1970 helps retain not only the Nelson of that time period but also the classic setup of newsrooms that were already gone by the time I started working as a freelancer in 1990, thanks to hatchet men like Conrad Black. Showing just how arcane the lore of the old newsrooms had already become, I was startled by Margoshes’ use of the term ‘morgue’ for a newspaper’s archives. As if purging itself of the faculty of memory, to cut costs, the corporate news chains began disposing of their archives sometime in the late 1990s. Thankfully the century-old archives of the now-defunct Nelson Daily News (another victim of corporate hatchet men) made it to the Shawn Lamb Archives at the Touchstones Museum of Art and History en route to the landfill. As documented in Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols masterful post mortem, The Death and Life of American Journalism, the drive for corporate profit has all but destroyed modern journalism and our democracies are by far the worse for it.
Margoshes’ ear for dialogue is as savoury and delectable as his descriptive passages, and it’s fitting that he reserves one of the best speeches in the book for Sweeny’s newsroom mentor, a man fittingly named Highmountain:
“ ‘The man who wrote this drivel.’ Highmountain curled his lip. ‘One of the teachers at the school. He moonlights for me. I won’t mention his name for fear of bringing ridicule upon his head. …He gets paid so poorly for trying to bring education to you heathens that even the meager something I give him brightens him up. And I, well, I wouldn’t want to have to print a page with blank space on it, and he helps me fill it up. The quality doesn’t matter all that much. It’s the type, the black lines running horizontally across the white page that impresses most people, makes them feel the world is unfolding as it should. Leave it out and they howl.’”
Highmountain’s words could just as easily be the epitaph for corporate journalism in the 21st century. With the pay scale for reporters at an all-time low, the news chains rely on a steady stream of journalism school grads—what used to be known as ‘cub reporters’—to staff a newspaper. Consequently the average age of a reporter these days is about 27, so no room anymore for the grizzled, seen-it-all, heard-that-bullshit-line-before veterans a long-lived newspaper was once so good at cultivating. In other words, reporters with some knowledge of a community’s history and a savvy awareness of political gamesmanship. But then, why would CEOs want that in a corporate dictatorship?
Drowning Man is one of those rare delights in books—a story that keeps you peeling away layer after layer of fine language and hidden depths. It’s a genuine shame this novel was overlooked. Let’s hope it can tread water long enough to reach dry land and be celebrated as a true original.
NOTE: If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of Drowning Man, you can contact the author directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org