First, a quick note; this may be the greatest description of the Canadian peoples ever put to paper. “The people work too hard, and are boring because of it. They live in nice homes, and watch hockey on television…The people do not like opera or ballet, and they have no famous writers. They are polite to one another, without ever being friendly. They keep their problems to themselves, and don’t know how to laugh properly.” Perfect.
I think Robert Hough must delight in confounding expectations.
His first novel, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, with its quaint cover evoking a bygone era of big-game danger and circus escapades, looked to be a rousing send-up of adventure novels. Quite a surprise, then, to discover Hough leavening the ribaldry with deft psychological depth and witty meta-fiction asides.
Six years later, he does it again. First, the title: The Culprits. It puts one in mind of a crime thriller, along the lines of The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dogs. Then there’s a cover image, a silhouette of a rabbit, blindfolded, with a target painted on it. I am immediately reminded of the bizarre Canadian movie Phil the Alien, wherein a secret operative with a shadowy U.S. agency is trained to ignore all emotions by killing puppies with a cheese grater. It’s funnier than it sounds.
What a non-surprise to discover that the culprits of the title are not villains bent on monetary gains, but something far more intangible. “How about fantasy? How about desire? How about the need to keep the mind nimble and the soul a little more lifelike, despite all the drudgery that is thrown by life at us?” The culprits, in Hough’s universe, are the emotions that fight to take chances, to seek joy, to be happy; these culprits keep us interested in living.
The next surprise comes through the plot, which sets itself up in a few broad strokes to be a comical satire of lovelorn individuals trapped in marriages of convenience. Again, however, Hough refuses to deliver the expected. Damn him. Damn him, I say, and damn his inestimable talent.
Hank Wallins is a lonely man. A night-time computer operator with an insurance company, he has no friends, no prospects, and a maddening case of tinnitus. As he notices one night, “[he] had fourteen cigarettes left, and enough change for five cups of coffee from the Quality Assurance vending machines. Other than that, there was nothing, not a thing, in the joke that was his life.”
A fortuitous push into the oncoming path of a subway train puts him into hospital, and into contact with a man who has recently benefited from the offerings of the website From Russia with Love. It is an online love market for lonely North American men and desperate Russian women, and Hank is a prime candidate for its services. As is Anna, a Russian woman badly treated by her lover, and in desperate need of a change. Hoping for anything, she begins a correspondence with Hank, who sees in her the image of his long-lost love.
This is the stuff of classic comedy, of Neil Simon witticisms and Hollywood fluff a la Green Card. And there is fine humour in Hough’s smooth delivery of Hank’s transparently bad idea, of his desperation in finding companionship through Internet scams. Anna’s obvious dislike of Hank, her disappointment in his ordinariness, is matched by her feelings toward Toronto; “There was something about the city’s orderliness that exacerbated her turmoil. There was something about its cool functionality that made her lose her composure. Even the air felt thin, the soul squeezed out of it.”
Yet after this initial set-up, Hough brings in a third character; Ruslan, a Dagestani living in Russia, the former lover of Anna who finds himself kidnapped in Putin’s Russia. Suddenly, all expectations go out the window, and Hough expertly manoeuvres through a plot that combines the mundane goings-on of Canada with terrorists, disgruntled Russian citizenry, and horrific brutality. All of this from the omnipresent POV of a narrator whose identity shall remain secret, but whose outlook on life is arguably amongst the most touching and unique in 21st century Canadian literature.
There is much more to Hough’s story, as he effectively contrasts the disparate personalities who propel the plot forward. But for all its modern pyrotechnics, there is something undeniably sweet and old-fashioned at the core of The Culprits, a yearning for more than life gives. As Hank pines, Anna whines, and Ruslan slowly erodes, Hough reveals a compassion for the simple needs of his characters, whether they be in straits commonplace or dire. “Humans, they cope,” the narrator advises, and it is this theme that brings about the major events of The Culprits. Whether it might be ill-advised acts of love or acts of terrorism, the humans, they do indeed cope. It’s all we can expect to do, Hough appears to say, and it is a testament to his storytelling verve that such a sentiment does not bog the story down in depression. Rather, like Hank falling to the tracks below, it hovers. It stays aloft, and floats, and astonishes. The Culprits is one of the best novels of 2007.