Barbara Gowdy, Mister Sandman (HBJ, 1996)
[originally posted 12Feb2002]
Mister Sandman was a Publishers’ Weekly Best Book of 1996, and it’s easy to see why. Gowdy’s third novel (and fourth book) is an engaging look into a world the is both completely warped and so close to the surface of reality that sometimes it’s hard to remember that what’s on the page is fiction.
Mister Sandman is the story of the Canary family, who are your basic everyday family. At least, they would be if life were a David Lynch film. Gordon, the patriarch, is a closet homosexual in a house full of women. (Perhaps it’s more odd that he isn’t a transvestite than it would be if he were.) His wife Doris is exploring her own enjoyment of the members of the fairer sex. They have three children: Sonja, fat, housebound by choice, and rich from her job as a pin clipper; Marcia, somewhat nymphomaniacal, able to converse with the aphasic; and Joan, dropped on her head as an infant, considered brain-damaged by her doctors and family but actually a genius. Joan, we find out in the first few sentences, is actually Sonja’s daughter, but for the sake of propriety (Joan is born in the late fifties), she’s passed off as one of Gordon and Doris’.
The book looks at the life of the family, mostly as it relates to Joan, but also in other snatches at various times in their lives (Sonja’s seduction by Joan’s father, Gordon’s lovesickness over a redheaded plumber, etc.). Joan’s inability to speak and propensity to spend her time in small dark places makes her the perfect confessor, and we spend our time snickering at the revisions the penitents make when they get to the alter. Joan, though, is a bit too smart for them, as the book spends its time making clear. How she ends up making it clear is truly a beautiful scene, and quite worthy of the accolades from PW. I don’t think it would be too much of a plot spoiler to say that the book’s climax takes on Biblical proportions.
Gowdy’s reputation in America didn’t start growing until the novel after this, The White Bone. Thus, some Americans who are already familiar with her may have missed this little gem, I urge you to take a step back and give it a look. Those unfamiliar with Gowdy who like their family sagas more insane than dysfunctional are sure to get a kick out of it. Highly recommended. ****