Thursday, September 10, 2015

Grant Buday's Stranger on a Strange Island

(This review was first published in subTerrain #60.)

The front cover picture of Grant Buday’s 2011 Mayne Island memoir, Stranger on a Strange Island, announces the tone of its innards unambiguously: a metallic light grey Airstream trailer, detached, foregrounds a patch of island forest. The Gulf Islands have long been associated with romantic getaways, spiritual transformations, and pulchritudinous seascapes, but just months into an ongoing eight-year stay on tiny Mayne, those visions have closed like eyes poked by Moe the head Stooge: “November arrived. The clocks were rolled back and the rain began to fall – and fall ... What with black clouds overhead, tall trees all around, and no street lights, it felt positively medieval. By three in the afternoon it was twilight, by four dark, by five so cave-black I needed a flashlight to venture out the door. What was all that about a third less rain?” To be clear, the Buday family’s move from Vancouver to Mayne was undertaken more out of economic pressure than idealistic stance, but an intriguing pull in Buday’s rumination is one between mundane necessity and spiritual hope. An initial job of helping an employer relocate an illegally moored boat involves this non-postcard entry: “My wet denim stuck to me like depression, my pale and frozen hands resembled bled pork, my back was in spasm. As for my teeth, I was clenching them so tightly against the cold that I feared for my dental work.” Yet the book’s last chapter, of the author’s whale watching excursion with his eight-year-old son, culminates in grace: “she jumped high, surging out of the water with no warning, right up into the air, that bus-sized beast performing a pirouette in the bright sunshine ... The entire ship seemed to stagger. But there she was, twenty tonnes of mammal only twenty metres away, suspended in one glittering airborne moment, a greeting from another world.”

It’s not all angst and wonder. Humour, wit, irony, and satire abound, and are incorporated into the anecdotes with the natural aplomb of a head cook festooning a three-tiered cake with baroque curlicues. Buday is a terrifically funny writer. Past efforts in short stories, novels, and travel essays have shown his gift for uproarious yet accurate simile, believable punch-line dialogue, coarse slapstick, and situational disjunction, all of it delivered in unassuming voice and smooth transition. Here, Buday is able to display a more relaxed tone, a conversational wisdom for his deprecatory, occasionally caustic, humour. The mood is at times melancholic, yet the language is spry and engaging; the autobiographical persona is a maladroit foil to Mr. Handyman, yet there’s satisfaction and even defiance in a low-tech pullback. Buday seamlessly weaves personal interaction with natural description, fascinating allusion with fictive hijinks (the chapter on Mayne Island’s founding), and biographical excavation with incisive psychological speculation. Some may not take to Buday’s penchant for balloon puncturing, but it’s a necessary universal endeavour, and one that yields its own occasional epiphanies, all the more earned for being honest and tenaciously pursued: “The tree hesitated, creaked slowly, creaked loudly, and began to tilt. With the solemn grandeur unique to the enormous, the cedar began to splinter and groan as it gained momentum. The whole world seemed to be toppling. The tree pitched forward then struck the ground with a whamp! And lo, light did flood through the newly opened gap in the forest.”