REQUESTS AND DEDICATIONS by Elise Levine (McClelland & Stewart), 312 pages, $22.99 paper. Rating: NN
Requests and Dedications is like a cool radio station with lousy reception. Snippets of great melody occasionally come through, but they're lost in frustrating interference. Expat Torontonian Elise Levine blew up eight years ago with her short story collection, Driving Men Mad. This might explain why her second book seems less a novel than an aggregation of interconnected storylets from three alternating perspectives: horse trainer Walker, his girlfriend Mimi and his niece Tanis, the daughter of Mimi's best friend. All three live in close quarters in Walker's grungy house/stables on the outskirts of T.O.
Teenager Tanis hates school, resents her cleaning-lady mom and lacks a sense of purpose. Walker is driven by his desire to form a family and tries to be the glue that binds the dissatisfied group. Mimi, a floundering lounge singer and sometime groupie, vibrates in a haze of rye and cigarettes, yearning to be larger than life but fading in the dry desolation of rural suburbia.
Orbiting this well-drawn nucleus are some half-sketched characters.
Levine's prose is exhausting to read. She's a good writer but buries kernels of revelation beneath layers of adjectival chaff. Sure, her setting is rooted in the particular, but it's difficult to form a clear impression through the overwritten, cubist-style landscapes.
The shifting points of view add to the confusion. Although each chapter is narrated by a different character, the speakers are never identified, so we're constantly struggling to reorient ourselves by figuring out who's talking and who's being talked about. It's an interesting conceit that fails.
Oddly enough, Levine's voice feels most authentic when she writes in the persona of sole male character Walker, a crusty, beaten-down optimist who strives to be a good father-provider.
Requests And Dedications is ambitious and dense, but it's not an easy read. You've gotta be pretty dedicated to unearth humanity and hope in this sea of convoluted description.
Levine reads Wednesday (April 16) at Harbourfront Centre. See Readings, this page, for details.SARAH LISS Write Books at email@example.com