Sometimes a book creeps up on you. That's what happens with Cumberland, a novel that starts out as if it's just another day in the bar for middle-aged millworker Ernest but soon enters more explosive areas.Ernest is barely recovered from his divorce of a year ago -- and he's not open about what went wrong. The mill, thanks to free trade, is closing down. And he just can't stop himself from heading down to the park for some late-night gay sex.
Starting an affair with bartender Bea isn't helping, and anyway she's got problems of her own, and a 17-year-old roommate who has a crush on Ernest's 30-something drinking buddy Nick and doesn't seem to care that Nick's wife recently died of cancer and his son isn't over the devastation.
The multi-gifted Smith -- he's also a poet, actor, screenwriter and video maker -- tells the story plainly, and it's extremely effective. His characters' stories of love and loss have so much emotional impact that they don't need embellishment. He's got a way of understanding subtle personal dynamics -- his scenario of a bully sexually harassing a lonely boy gets right at the complex issues of complicity.
And though there are some resolutions to the tensions in the tale, Smith doesn't let us off easy. We still don't know whether Ernest is ever going back down to that park. But then again, some issues have a tendency to linger, don't they?
Smith reads at This Ain't the Rosedale Library on Monday (April 29). See book readings.p>
cumberland by Michael V. Smith (Cormorant), 293 pages, $22.95 paper. Rating: NNNN