The Beautiful Place
by Lee Gowan
A sadness hangs over The Beautiful Place, as you might it expect it would, beauty being connected to the sublime and deep emotional resonance. But the Beautiful Place in The Beautiful Place is also connected to death, or the attempt to cheat death, the deep freezing of brains or whole bodies with the expectation that at some point in the future the technology would be discovered to return the animation of life to them.
A number of lives are re-animated in this slow stirring and throbbing novel by Lee Gowan, son of Saskatchewan as his novel is a child of classic prairie lit. Because Gowan’s protagonist, known only as Bentley, is the 50-something grandson of Phillip Bentley, one-time minister and painter and character in Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House (1941). I have not read Ross's book, but from the Wikipedia introduction I can tell you that both books are written in the form of journal, both never reveal the main character's first name, both concern ruminations of the heart and the social affairs of their communities.
Bentley Jr. Jr., works in sales for the freezing company. He lives in Toronto with his wife and school-age daughter, while maintaining a connection with his university-age daughter and ex-wife in Vancouver. His current marriage is precarious. He's the kind of guy who calls his marriage therapist Dr. Mengele and his house, chez equity. He has his grandfather's gun and contemplates using it on himself. One has the opportunity to ponder Chekhov's adage once again. If a gun appears, does it go off? (Not telling.) His mother lives on the family farm, now widowed, alone, and slipping from competency. His admired older brother committed suicide in his youth. His gruff, emotionally-unavailable father wanted Bentley Jr. Jr. to take over the farm, but he had other plans. To be a writer. To be an artist, like his grandfather, whom he seeks out and develops a fleeting friendship with.
There's a lot going on in this book, let's confront that right off. Bentley Jr. Jr. is surrounded by women, none of whom he seems able to say no to, none of whom he seems able to please. Okay, that's a bit harsh, but there's an element of truth to it. Bently Jr. Jr. is set upon by the demands of others, and he can't meet all of them. His university-age daughter wants a pile of cash to go to New York for art school. His current wife wants—what?—a renewed commitment. The mysterious Mary Abraham, to whom the journal entries are directed, wants her dead husband's head back.
Besieged on all sides, Bentley Jr. Jr. wants out. The writing life didn't happen. Now he's middle aged and sucked dry. He gets fired, and it starts to look like his ex-employer may murder him. Addressing Mary Abraham, Bentley Jr. Jr. tells the story of his life and outlines his current predicaments. Complications ensue, tension tightens. Mary Abraham sees visions of Jesus and Buddha and refuses to take no for an answer. Where will this all end up? (Not telling.)
Gowan carries us into the dark currents of Bentley Jr. Jr.'s heart and makes us feel the confusion, the disappointment, the weirdness of it all. Bentley's a compelling narrator with a life rich in detail and circumstance. He's caught in the here and now—and he cannot pause, hoping for a future technology to rescue him. Play the hand you're dealt, might the message on the whispering wind. In Saskatchewan they might say, Get on with it. Bentley does. Beauty.