MURIELLA PENT by Russell Smith (Doubleday), 348 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NN Rating: NN
When did Russell Smith get so stodgy? You get the feeling from Muriella Pent that writing a weekly column for Saturday's Globe And Mail has turned him into a writer looking for approval from all the wrong people. The set-up for this, his third novel, sounds like it could have some edge. A locally funded literary arts committee name Caribbean writer Marcus Royston their writer-in-residence, believing they can score some diversity points while helping the feds in foreign affairs resolve a pesky political situation in Royston's home country.
Problem is, Royston's not interested in being a poster boy for anti-racism, and besides, he's a bit of boozer and a lot of a letch.
His host, the recently widowed Muriella Pent, is immediately attracted to him. That fact, along with the loud arty party she throws, gets her into hot water with the Stilwoode Park Association, a thinly disguised version of Wychwood.
There's potential for cutting commentary here, given the Wychwood association's battle to stop the TTC barns from becoming a mixed-use development of park and artists' spaces. But in a crucial sequence, Smith stoops to stereotypes that derail the strategy.
Worse, he loses his grip on his main character. Is the widow with a journal a budding artist or a fake? Is her raw desire to be in the orbit of artists legitimate or - based on her decision to rent rooms in her mansion to photographers of nudes and sculptors who work in toxic plastics - just stupidly naive?
Smith's ambivalence is intriguing at first, but it morphs into profound contempt, a motivation that almost always works against good writing.
And, except for the kick-ass chapter describing the blowout party at Muriella's, the language is weirdly tight-assed. Even when Smith gets inside the head of his alienated 20-something characters, they sound like they've been to too many fundraising teas.
Smith just won't take his narrative as far as it can go. Muriella Pent reads like it's trolling for the Giller. The sad thing is, it might work.