Men’s books. Normally, I don’t classify the novels I read along gender lines, though I have read and reviewed “chick lit.” Both Wiseman’s Wager by Dave Margoshes and Fun & Games by David Michael Slater are far removed from that genre – the sex is less romantic, the language more crude, the energy more confrontational or aggressive. My guess is that the former will appeal most to older male readers, the latter to younger.
Both novels feature main characters with whom readers can sympathize. Despite their faults, they are likable, and they have an energy that drives the narrative, even as it circles, as in Wiseman’s Wager, or spins out of control, as in Fun & Games.
In Wiseman’s Wager, Zan Wiseman, 82, has recently moved to Calgary from Las Vegas. His longtime partner, Myrna, has passed away and his only remaining sibling, Abe, lives in Calgary, where his wife, Dolly, lies in a coma. In the late 1980s, the “A to Z Brothers, together again after all these years.”
Zan grew up with his brothers in Winnipeg, participating in the labor movement through the General Strike in 1919. The family moved to Toronto for a short period after the strike but returned to Winnipeg. Zan himself moved to Toronto soon thereafter and lived there for many years, continuing his union and communist party involvement.
Early into his stay in Calgary, Zan, suffering from severe constipation, lands in hospital, where he makes a joke about killing himself. We mainly learn about his younger days, his one novel – The Wise Men of Chelm, published in 1932 with little fanfare because the publisher goes bankrupt (it was the Depression, after all) and republished some 30 years later to great acclaim – his many wives, his brothers’ escapades (arrest for robbery, going to war, etc.), his relationship with his parents and his feelings about religion, politics and love, through his government-imposed therapy sessions with the “Lady Doctor,” Zelda, on whom he develops a small crush. There are also journal entries, “duets” in which he and Abe exchange brief, rapid-fire repartee, and Abe’s one-sided conversations with Dolly.
Zan is opinionated, sarcastic and difficult at times, but he is also endearing. He has led (perhaps) a fascinating life in an historically fascinating time. The confessional of an elderly man, there is uncertainty as to what did and did not happen, but readers won’t struggle with that aspect. While probably realistic as to how such memories would unfold, the repetition impedes the flow of the story somewhat and, at times, the dialogue crosses into stereotype; two bickering old Jewish men (Zan and Abe) or a crotchety old grump (Zan with Zelda).
The issues raised during the novel, however, are extremely engaging. Zan’s involvement with the Communist Party in Canada; his views on religion, particularly Judaism, of course; the losses we incur as we age; the different paths that members of the same family take; the way in which we fall in and out of love. There is much to recommend this novel, but it just didn’t hold my attention from start to finish. As Zan’s mind wandered, so did mine. A more exacting editor would have helped.
As for Fun & Games, it is much more focused and is also very well written, but it takes many trips to Crazy Town. It is a very stylistic novel that will appeal to many with its dark humor and intelligent take on various aspects of life, but the plot was a little over-the-top unrealistic, though the characters felt real enough.
The expression is, “It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.” And, sometimes tacked on to the end of that is, “Then it’s hilarious.” Well, there is much that is funny in this book but it didn’t reach hilarity for me, despite, not to ruin any surprises, the fact that many, many people get hurt (i.e. die) – I don’t know how high a body count there is for most coming-of-age tales but if there were a list, Fun & Games would be pretty high up on it.
We meet Jon Schwartz, his three main buddies, his parents and two sisters, as well as his grandparents, when he is in Grade 9. It is the late 1980s. Not surprisingly, sex – or, more accurately, curiosity about it – is a prominent part of Jon’s life. He and his friends discuss it a lot, experiment with it a little, and fall victim to Jon’s sisters’ use of it to manipulate them.
Religion and Judaism feature prominently in Fun & Games. Jon’s grandmother is constantly making discomforting “jokes” about Jews, Israelis and the Holocaust – she and her husband are survivors – and his father is an avowed atheist and a respected scholar and author on the topic. One of Jon’s friends covets the rabbi’s daughter, and the rabbi is apparently one of the few people able to argue with his father about religion to any effect.
Jon, who more than one character remarks, “handle[s] everything so well,” handles a lot from Grade 9 to his first semester at university, where Fun & Games leaves us. If you can suspend your disbelief to the full extent, you will enjoy the fast-paced exhilarating ride that is Fun & Games. And it’s not an empty ride. I can still feel the thrill that came for me from the more philosophical parts, the ideas Slater’s presents amid the contrived chaos, and the reflections on family, friendship, loss and life.