Every author has a verb. Munro dazzles, Morrison provokes, Atwood survives. Tim Bowling, quite simply, writes. The man’s laptop doubles as a conveyor belt; to date (and I may already be behind by the time this review goes to print), Bowling has published countless books. I mean “countless” in a literal sense because I’ve been unable to find a definite number. His Harbour Publishing author’s page lists his bylines at 11; Wikipedia says 16. In The Heavy Bear, Bowling’s latest book, and fifth novel, the front matter agrees with Harbour and lists Bowling’s publications at 11.
The novel’s protagonist is a man named—brace yourself—Tim Bowling. If that isn’t enough post-modernism for you, the cast list also includes the ghost of Buster Keaton and the bear-shaped spirit of Delmore Schwartz, all wandering through Edmonton.
Bowling cut his writerly teeth with poetry—he’s twice been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for poetry—and that history translates into his prose. At its best, Bowling’s style is like a diamond: clear and cutting. Take one of The Heavy Bear’s introductory images: “A hatful moonlight splashed on the hardwood floor.” Concise, witty, strikingly visual. The progression of the chapter’s moonlight encapsulates the novel’s progression as a whole. A couple paragraphs later, a character wears “a shirt of moonlight,” and the metaphor mixes. A page later, there is “no moon and no moonlight.” Finally, there is a “spotlight of the moon. But… the night remained moonless.”
The kicker is that the moonless–moonlight ultimately does not matter. Bowling employs this dichotomy to render the setting mysterious and ghostly. But the action threading this chapter together is a mysterious ghost who’s tightrope-walking on the electrical lines. Surely that image alone is enough to carry the scene, yet the setting is overwritten with beautiful cul-de-sacs—images that ultimately lead nowhere.
The first 40 pages of this novel are almost entirely absent of direct dialogue. As a result, the narrative becomes entrenched so deeply in the narrator’s mind that the reader feels claustrophobic. The first quarter of the book is stuck in a loop-de-loop, rerunning along the contours of the solipsistic world that Bowling (the character) has constructed. For example, while the multi-chapter history of Buster Keaton is interesting, it’s not necessarily compelling—Buster himself quickly wanes in importance to the narrative. Once The Heavy Bear sheds the deadweight of its first quarter, the plot picks up and Bowling’s legendary style has room to breathe.
—Richard Kelly Kemick is a poet and fiction writer in Calgary.