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George Bowering’s memoir playful, questioning – and R-rated

George Bowering looks back at his adolescence when he is trying to keep four female human beings happy.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Title
Pinboy
Author
George Bowering
Genre
Memoir
Publisher
Cormorant
Pages
276
Price
$32

At 15, George Bowering is hot and bothered. His developing sexuality may be the best and the worst of it, but it's not all of it. The air around Oliver, in the interior of British Columbia, is above body temperature all summer, and "hot as hell" in September in the rubber-lined pits of the local 5-pin bowling alley, where a boy is paid by the penny for replacing the knocked-down pins on the black circles in the years before the all-Canadian game lost out to American 10-pin bowling, with its mechanical pin-setters. Pinboy gets off to a raunchy start when George is setting pins for the teachers' league and sees more cleavage and thigh than he's ever seen in three dimensions and living colour, thanks to home economics teacher Monica Verge.

The 1950-51 school year is a time in George's adolescence when he is "trying to live an ordinary kid's life while trying to keep four female human beings happy": his mother; his girlfriend Wendy; Jeanette, a classmate from the wrong side of the tracks; and Miss Verge, who teaches alongside his father at the Southern Okanagan High School. Jeanette is the one he doesn't understand, Wendy is the one who makes him fall in love with love, Miss Verge fuels schoolboy-teacher fantasies and his mother is the only one he doesn't bring to tears.

George's adventures and misadventures make Pinboy the best candidate for a Stephen Leacock Award in a long, long time, even if its R-rating makes it an unlikely winner. Never mind. Bowering, a prolific B.C. writer of fiction, poetry, biography and history, deserves a higher reward than that: many, many readers. He has written a novel/memoir that, in Brian Fawcett's blurb, "is as hilariously accurate as it is moving. I don't think I've ever seen anything like this before."

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Full disclosure: Fawcett is a mutual friend, but I've spoken to Bowering only a couple of times at literary festivals and never managed to read any of his books cover to cover: Too glib, I thought. I was less than enthusiastic when Fawcett pushed an advance reading copy of Pinboy in my direction, but I read it in one great gulp. I read it again slowly and haven't been able to stop thinking and talking about it since. It won't be to everybody's taste, but it makes a perfect gift for any man over 65 who loves women and baseball and still reads books, and is also likely to delight anyone who loves him.

When death starts claiming many close to us, lots of writers realize that they don't want to leave whatever readers they may find posthumously in any doubt about the hopes, fears, ambitions, disappointments, follies and triumphs that really mattered to them. More literary memoirs are started than finished; more fail than succeed. There are two reasons why Bowering's beats the odds, one simple, the other complex.

The simple reason is the sweet calmness of the happy man you hear in his storytelling.

The complex reason is that Bowering is alert, playful and questioning: He must have drawers stuffed with detailed records of the commonplace objects and activities of a vanished world to draw upon in portraying "an ordinary kid's life" in 1950, who glories in staying a kid as long as possible with voracious reading and sandwich-making, drawing cartoons, studying sports stories more avidly than any school subject (he wants to be a sportswriter), goofing around, singing, blowing tuba, playing sports with style rather than success, exploring wild places beyond the town limits, stacking firewood, and building his college fund by working in orchards for piecework pay: thinning apple trees; picking cherries, apricots, peaches, pears, apples or, luckily that summer, hand-trucking boxed fruit into the coolers at the packing plant for 70 cents an hour from June to September.

Because he knows so well what is factually verifiable, old man Bowering plays around with what did happen, what he wanted to happen, and what he was afraid might happen to the kid he once was as he tries to understand how female human beings live and think. The result is a unique portrait of empathy growing as powerful, compelling and risky as sexual desire.

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