The Romantic by Barbara Gowdy (HarperFlamingo), 371 pages, $38.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Ever watched an hugely talented addict friend go down? If you have, then you know that feeling of helplessness that comes with trying to prevent a user from going into free-fall. And I bet many of you loved the pathetic fucker all the way through the experience.So it goes in The Romantic, Barbara Gowdy's very tender portrait of the relationship between Abel and Louise, doomed by Abel's ongoing affair with alcohol.
Louise was vulnerable from the start, abandoned by her beauty queen mother when she was nine and barely coping with geek status in a suburban Toronto school in the 60s. Abel, too, is emotionally unhinged, orphaned early on and adopted by German immigrants.
Gowdy has always been an expert at getting inside the heads of people who don't quite fit in. Here, the misfit is Louise, who has that exhilarating feeling of being rescued when she finds her soulmate, Abel. As children, they play in their ravine hideout in a loving exercise in creativity. But as teenagers, drugs and booze take over, and Louise unravels when she can't break the pattern: he loves her, he loves to drink more, and when he drinks he fucks around. And she still loves him.
Gowdy's gift is in making us understand how this kind of thing can happen, how somebody can sustain a commitment to a person so obviously going into the crapper. We know Abel's going to die. The question is, will Louise's self-worth and whatever life ambitions she has left die with him?
With The Romantic, Gowdy's made a major shift away from The White Bone, her epic howl of outrage against the elephant hunt, and come back to the more human scale of Mr. Sandman. As always, the detail is precise, the observations canny.
I do miss the crazy humour of Gowdy's earlier books. But there's something else going on here -- a gorgeously painful and wholly grown-up sense of longing. That's just as important.