"Veteran poet Barry Dempster’s equally enthralling second novel, The Outside World, makes a worthy—if smaller in scope—companion to Munro"
The Winnipeg Review - by Brett Josef Grubisic
The unrepentant and lifelong reader in me is a bit dismayed to acknowledge it: when thinking of the I’ll-never-forget-when stories of other people’s youths, it’s actually characters in books that spring to mind most readily.
Whether harrowing (as in Cordelia Strube’s Lemon, R.M. Vaughan’s Spells, Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, Alissa York’s Fauna, and Augusten Burroughs’A Wolf at the Table) or bittersweet (like Aryeh Lev Stollman’s The Far Euphrates, Bernard Cooper’sA Year of Rhymes and Truth Serum, Tom Perrotta’s Bad Haircut: Stories from the Seventies, J.J. Lee’s The Measure of a Man, and David Sedaris’s (Naked), these crystalline, artfully shaped print-portraits of youth have a distinct advantage insofar as they reflect the careful work of talented writers requiring years to compose them—rather than, say, a colleague unreeling an anecdote over lunch about a grade 12 victory or defeat.
For good and bad, the ne plus ultra of coming of age volumes for me remains Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Inevitably (and unfairly, I’ll admit), any chronicle of maturation stands in comparison to what I see as its perfection. Though closer to Perrotta’s lovely Bad Haircut in suburban spirit, veteran poet Barry Dempster’s equally enthralling second novel, The Outside World, makes a worthy—if smaller in scope—companion to Munro.
The novel begins with the ostensible warmth of nostalgia: Greetings from Ed and Flo Tedley! He’s hard-working and fatherly-stern, busy and exhausted most days with running a Texaco; she’s a stay-home mom who watches the goings on of the “perfectly normal suburban street” from the front room window. It’s Scarborough in 1966, and Italians, a divorcee, and an alcoholic seem exotic and vaguely scandalous. The Tedleys have two children and a pet, and they chat with all their neighbours. (Patience is advised for readers who begin to anticipate cuteness of The Wonder Years variety.)
The narrator is Robinson ‘Robby’ Tedley (who turns thirteen in the opening chapter’s desultory birthday party). On the cusp of puberty and longing for normalcy and stability and comfort in a world that doesn’t seem all that inclined to supply it in generous dollops, he’s by turns befuddled, angry, and curious. On top of that, the typical preoccupations aggravate him: school cliques and authorities to negotiate, an interested girl, and a mouthy, sex-obsessed best friend who’s alternately fun and annoying.
And there’s Mom. Introduced in the opening pages peering through nearly shut living room curtains, she’s soon revealed to suffer from a case of agoraphobia that’s progressing at an alarming rate. Before long she’s unable to step outside the house and deeply worried about anyone in her family doing the same. After her husband’s heart attack early in the story, she begins to anticipate unlikely disasters looming everywhere (“My brain’s like a horror movie,” she explains). Flo retreats further, eventually wearing sunglasses inside the shadowy house and holing up, quaking with fear, in her bedroom.
Dempster’s account of her accelerating descent is both expertly paced and as compelling as car wreckage. Having established the relative normalcy of the family facade, its sudden and spectacular collapse comes with the shock of a slap, especially because after Ed’s heart attack, Flo appears poised for recovery.
The detailing of the familial responses is likewise remarkable: Robby’s mentally handicapped older sister Lissy remains unaware (“To her the world was wonderful”), relatives intervene ineffectually, his awful grandmother drops by for bitter minutes of accusation and ‘school of hard knocks’ cruelty, and, worse, the supposed rock of the family, his father, ignores the problem and eventually begins to seek refuge at newly purchased lake property and in an imagined future where the family will go “back to normal.”
Dempster’s focus remains primarily on Robby, though, and on his flailing attempts to anchor himself and the family.
During a trip to the hospital that’s terrifying to his mother, Robby observes:
As we rode in the back of the cab, it struck me that the shapeless heap of winter clothes squeezed between Lissy and me was not the same mother who, just a year earlier, could trim the boxwood hedge and hose down the sidewalk until it gleamed….The terrified creature sitting between Lissy and me was an imposter.
Panicked and angry, he turns to the other adults in his life—and they offer no guidance and little consolation. He understands that “something is terribly wrong,” but as a child who’s being subtly encouraged by his father and aunt to stay mum, he’s stuck.
All the while Robby’s environment grows claustrophobic; hemmed in by fear and confusion, he yearns for the world to “stop revolving around [his] mother’s stubbornness and go back to being immense.” With the help of an aunt, the family eventually accepts help from a psychiatrist (who does house calls). But when that doctor leaves for his summer vacation, Robby attempts an improvised treatment.
The genre can occasionally feature narrators that are preternaturally wise, insightful, and literate (as in Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!), but Robby’s assorted qualities—knowing and naive, self-reliant and needing nurturing, reasonable and erratic—add up to a confused if resilient boy who’s overburdened with questions and responsibilities. I have no idea how autobiographical the novel is, but Dempster appears to know this character’s every nuance.
Quibbles about Dempster’s approach are just that. For instance, the narrator hints now and then that he’s looking back, and yet the story provides almost no indication of where he’s narrating from. The retrospection raises questions the story leaves unanswered. Anachronisms (such as Robby’s claim to have “too much on my plate”) materialize once in a while too.
As Flo’s condition worsens, the family splinters in reaction. Seething with anger and worry, Robby’s attempts at tough love cause only further grief and guilt.
Dempster closes his glimpse at a tumultuous year in the life of a newly adolescent boy with lovely yet melancholic scenes of change and personal growth. The family is by no means functional and happy, but the very situation is also a catalyst for the familial evolution that’s necessary. Cautiously hopeful, the ending makes perfect sense.