Dave Margoshes’ protagonist has become stuck over time
by Stephen LaRose
Dave Margoshes: Wiseman’s Wager
Meet Zan Wiseman: communist, atheist (or Jewish — depending on the month), married and divorced four times, pushing his 80s. When Dave Margoshes’ latest novel Wiseman’s Wager (Coteau Books) opens, he’s reviewing the wreckage of his life, with the aid of a psychiatrist, in Calgary in early 1989. Yeah, Calgary. The most goyim city in Confederation in the year that communism collapsed as a social and political force in Europe and North America. What’s a guy to do?
As his brother Abe says, Zan isn’t a mensch (Yiddish for a dignified man), he’s a pitseleh (a boy), because he’s never grown up. Zan is mentally constipated, and the therapist’s job is to soften the “shit” he’s carried around with him so he can get it out of his system. The problem is, however, that there’s a lot of stuff to be excreted: marriages, affairs, miscarriages, communist pamphleteering, robberies, seditious plays — you know. The usual.
Or, maybe that mental constipation is another name for writer’s block. In the early 1930s, Zan wrote a couple of novels that received a few good reviews, but the publishing company turned toes up, as companies did after the stock market crash, and a bad review in a communist party newsletter tanked his confidence… and… well, can you still call yourself a writer if you don’t write? The easiest thing about writing is stopping, and Zan took the easy way out.
“It began with Henry Roth,” Margoshes recalls in an e-mail interview. Like Zan, Roth wrote a novel (Call It Sleep), which was published in 1934. Unfortunately, the book’s good reviews didn’t stop his publisher from declaring bankruptcy (a lot of that going around during the Great Depression). Nor did it lead to Roth getting another contract.
“I’d read and loved Call It Sleep in the ’60s, when it was reissued, and knew that he’d published nothing else, but I wasn’t really aware of his story until he began publishing again in the late ’80s, after a 50-year silence,” Margoshes continues. “The notion of this mother of a writer’s block intrigued me — what a great metaphor for human inertia! I conceived of Zan Wiseman, at least partly based on Roth, as a character with crippling indecision and inability to act.”
In comparison, Margoshes has been a busy man since he left Regina, his teaching job at the University of Regina and his gig as Prairie Dog’s restaurant reviewer, in 2010. A couple of years ago, Coteau Books published A Book Of Great Worth, and earlier this year he published another book of short stories titled God Telling a Joke and Other Stories with B.C.-based Oolichan Books. He’s also released three books of poetry since 2009. And of course, let’s not forget his Saskatchewan Book Awards Book Of The Year-winning 2007 short story collection, Bix’s Trumpet And Other Stories.
That’s about as anti-Henry Roth as you can get. But as Margoshes alludes to in the acknowledgements, Wiseman’s Wager had a long gestation period. He started work on the book in early 1996 and finished it in 2009.
“I began it in 1996, while I was writer-in-residence in Winnipeg. That city, with its large Jewish immigrant population and history of left-wing activism, seemed like the ideal place to set it. But I’d already been thinking about it for several years.”
There’s always a danger when an author starts work on a book or a story, stops writing it for whatever reason, then comes back to it, that just as the author doesn’t stay the same over that time, the characters and story will morph into something different.
“There is a risk of things going off the track,” says Margoshes. “On the other hand, every book has its own timetable, I’ve found. With this one, I spent a couple years on the first draft, put it aside and did other things, came back to it sporadically. It went through quite a few drafts before I was satisfied with it.”
You’d never know it by reading it, and that’s a good thing. Wiseman’s Wager is one of those books that resonates with the reader long after the book is finished and you see wisps of the characters everywhere, even in the mirror. For a while, Communism replaces Judaism as Zan’s central religion, but he never really grows up as a person, which is all too common for most people (myself included). If history is an agreed-upon set of lies, as Napoleon once said, that’s as true for the historian as it is for Zan’s psychiatrist who draws the truth, or is left to infer the truth, from his therapy sessions.
Maybe think of Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past, as interpreted by a crotchety Seinfeld extra. If you really try to analyze the past, you have to understand that what we remember goes through a series of mental filters — what actually happened, what we remember, what we want to remember. Do people have bad memories and become forgetful? Or do we reach a point where so many awful things have happened and so many bad memories been generated that we don’t want to know?
Wiseman’s Wager probably won’t be considered the Saskatchewan literary event of the year, because there’s nothing inherently Saskatchewanian about the settings — Winnipeg in the 1930s, Toronto in the ’50s and ’60s, Calgary in the ’80s. But the mark has been set for the best book by a Saskatchewan author in 2014 with this release.
Wiseman’s Wager launches in Regina at 7:30 on Thursday, Sept. 4 at Tony Roma’s, 4450 South Albert St.