Up and Down by Terry Fallis

In his third novel, Terry Fallis sticks to the formula of his earlier work–likable young dude champions principled outsider in a setting infested with spin and #conservativerage. And what a formula it is! Fallis’s debut novel The Best-Laid Plans and the sequel The High Road were set against a backdrop of Canadian politics (see, spin and rage), and featured the endearingly clumsy Daniel Addison, who persuaded an old liberal feminist engineering professor Angus McLintock to enter politics. The books were funny and heartfelt, and The Best-Laid Plans won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humor and then won Canada Reads 2011. If you want an entertaining introduction to Canadian politics–look no further.

If in the first two novels, Daniel emerged from the lions’ den of Canadian politics with his morals unscathed, in Up and Down,  David battles the Goliath that is the Media Machine. David Stewart is the newest member of the Canadian office of a giant PR company that’s pitching NASA for the chance to renew (North American) public interest in the space program. (Canada is part of this endeavor because of Canadarm, the Canadian-invented robotic arm that does cool stuff in space).  Despite (or perhaps due to) his neophyte status, David’s idea wins the day. NASA opts to run a Citizen Astronaut lottery–a random draw that’d pick one Canadian and one American to visit the International Space Station. Any citizen over the age of eighteen can enter the contest.

Things go smoothly till the Canadian winner is chosen, and then it’s mayhem.  The computer-selected candidate–one L. Percival from Cigar Lake, B.C.–isn’t the telegenic interest-magnet the PR mavens envisioned. Will expediency triumph over justice? And what’s a young, well-intentioned, endearingly clumsy guy to do but resort to some gentle skulduggery of his own to save the day?

In Up and Down, Fallis explores homophobia,  ageism and the imperative for space exploration, and he also movingly describes the lingering death of a parent. Yet the overall impression of the book is one of enthusiastic good cheer, thanks to lightness of his touch and frequent infusions of slapstick humor.  Fallis writes with great gusto about Canada-U.S. relations (dodgy!), space exploration (thrilling!), and public relations (useful but often sucky).  (Fallis, a PR professional himself, is refreshingly down-to-earth about the realities of his career.) And he’s very good at giving his characters unique mannerisms and personalities without descending into caricature.

Stylistically speaking, I did find the book predictable–the humor occasioned by David’s clumsiness is very similar to that of the previous books. I also felt some of the descriptive writing seemed to be trying too hard. “He calmly replaced the phone in the cradle and held his hand there for just a second or two before leaping to his feet and pumping his fist so hard I feared he might dislocate his shoulder. Then he whooped a few times and did a brief but disturbing victory dance that a little bit bump and grind and far too much Curly from the three stooges. It was actually quite frightening but really didn’t matter.” There’s a lot in this vein, and it sometimes drags down the well-oiled plot.

But overall, Up and Down is a very warm-hearted, funny and likable book. I attended a reading by Fallis last month where he spoke about his passion for space exploration, and it’s fully reflected in his writing. He also mentioned several in-jokes about the names of Canada’s former Prime Ministers–all of which I missed.  In person, Fallis radiates goodwill and humor, and appeared genuinely happy to drive two hours through rush hour traffic to spend  time with his readers. Not all authors are like that.

(Terry Fallis photo credit: Jessica at Not My Typewriter)

In sum, this book is a comfort read, with good people winning in an idealized Canada. And as with his previous books, Fallis wears his liberal heart on his sleeve, bless him.  Sexism, ageism and homophobia all receive a well-deserved kick in their pants, and I was cheering along every page. If only L.Percival were descended from a passenger on the Komagata Maru… but hey, there’s always the next book. Battle on, Terry!

On television, on books

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a guest on Book’Em TV, a Canadian TV show about books and reading, and the episode where I feature was shot on Monday. It was a lot easier than I expected, but I suspect I giggled feebly on camera while drool slopped down my chin. Ah, well. The show, which debuts this September, features a host, a panel of three readers, and a different guest in each episode. In essence, the three panelists, who each picked a favorite book, had to entice viewers to vote for their novel as the show’s read of choice. Their chosen titles were The Alchemist, The Beach, and Northanger Abbey, and it was great fun watching the three fight it out. The show host, Dr. Mary Ashun, really held it all together with her enthusiasm and down-to-earth approach–she made it seem as though a bunch of nice, book-obsessed folks got together to talk about their favorite thing. But, like, on TV. This is all way more difficult to achieve than it sounds.

The guest for the first episode was Terry Fallis, whose debut novel The Best Laid Plans won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor and also won Canada Reads 2011, which is a big big deal, sort of an Oprah Book Club but with a sedate, publicly funded Canadian flavor. His episode was shot the same day, so I squeezed hands with him and then procured his signature on my copy of TBLP.  I’ll do a full-length review of the book soon, but a quick heads-up if you haven’t read it yet–it’s a funny, mordant, but surprisingly tender story about an academic-turned-politician. Sometimes CanLit can seem deadly dull, all earnest angst and winter depression, but this novel makes its points through humor and satire, and it’s ultimately a shout-out to idealism. Huzzah! An intelligent feel-good novel! When was the last time…? I want to mention here that TBLP was repeatedly rejected by publishers, and that Fallis went the self-publishing route. Now he has a nice deal with McClelland, so a slush-pile rejectionista somewhere has probably changed jobs, and is now Rob Ford’s advisor. Fallis was really funny and smart, so I hope you catch him on the show. Meanwhile, stalk him on the internets here.

It was then my turn, and I talked about reviewing and blogging and proclaimed on television that I don’t own an e-reader because I like to smell books. And then it was over, and we all (minus Fallis) went out for pizza. And here is a picture; the long hair in the pink coral shirt on the extreme right is moi.

And a shout-out to all the lovely people on the show and behind the scenes, who were stratospherically NICE and very smart; someone set them to work on the debt ceiling already. And not to belabor the very obvious diversity thing, but holy crap, we participants came from four continents. Lots of different people all talking happily about books, followed by pizza. Do you have a better vision for Utopia?