At 60, John Lavery of Gatineau, Que. has never been happier. His long-simmering literary ambition has finally produced a first novel, Sandra Beck, which is receiving favourable notices for its originality and sophistication (it's one of the Globe 100 this week). An accomplished guitarist, he is busy completing a suite of his own songs, equally polished, for a debut CD. Goals he has pursued for years have "all materialized," he says. His marriage is strong and his three grown children are all doing well.
The fact that Lavery also has terminal liver cancer does not fit easily into the picture of a man so fulfilled, nor does it figure much in his conversation. The chemotherapy he now undergoes every two weeks - and will do "for the rest of my days, however many days those might be" - is "old hat," Lavery says. He says he is "very lucky" to be as functional as he is. Indeed he has never been busier.
"I don't know when the termination is going to happen," he says. "I've never asked and I don't want anybody ever to tell me."
Literary posterity is anyone's guess, but many better-known writers will be lucky to leave behind a monument as memorable as Sandra Beck, a flamboyant exercise which, from a potentially favourable future's point of view, will enjoy the added cachet of having been ignored by arbiters of contemporary taste. With roughly 100 new works of fiction a year now competing for Canada's top three literary prizes, it is inevitable that some if not many will be unjustly overlooked. The fact they could be as good as Sandra Beck says much about the quality of the culture as a whole.
The subject of Lavery's first novel is unabashedly the rich and playful language in which it is written, as applied to the multi-stranded story of a bilingual family living in the author's native Montreal. The enigmatic heroine, an angel disfigured by cancer, exists solely in the meandering recollections of, first, her daughter, and then her husband. Sandra Beck is literally an apparition of language, trapped in the subconscious gropings of her loved ones, and they drag her through some strange and even alarming terrain before depositing her back on the pedestal her grace demands.
" Sandra Beck is a difficult book," Lavery allows. "There's a lot of stuff that's not stated absolutely clearly." Its language is incandescent, often hilarious, freely at play in its natural terrain - "a minefield of misunderstanding and ambiguity."
Words erected the Twin Towers and words brought them down, according to Lavery. "The human condition is totally dependent on verbal exchange," he says. "That's what we are." Without it, he adds, human beings would be "mediocre animals." But it is as dangerous as it is great.
Sandra Beck affirms the latter quality in its straightforward enthusiasm forbilingualism. "Bilingualism opens a tremendous number of doors and allows for all kinds of things people aren't aware of," he says. "It doesn't have to create tension." On the contrary, Laverty adds, it is the living bridge between the two solitudes.
"I really did want to take bilingualism for granted," he says, "and I didn't want to address the political situation at all."
The world Lavery imagines is very much the one he has built for himself. As an English-speaking Montrealer, he left the city in the 1970s in the face of clear linguistic barriers. But the flight took him to the University of New Brunswick, where he met and married an Acadian from Edmunston. "Kind of like an Oedipus, I was trying to escape French and I just ran right into it," he says.
A "linguistic kind of guy," Lavery confronted the demon by refusing to speak a word of his native language for years. Today he boasts that his three children all speak English with a distinct French accent, "which I think is pretty cool," and he speaks French better than most natives.
The courage to write took longer to come, Lavery admits. "I put it off for a long time, for all kinds of different reasons, the principle one being I was afraid of not being any good at it." He was a cartographer and a proud househusband, eking out occasional stories in small literary magazines, when a call came out of the blue from a Toronto editor interested in publishing a collection. The result was Very Good Butter in 2000, followed by You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off four years later. Alerted to the promise, literary aficionados predicted great things to come.
Lavery had already afflicted the shimmering heroine of his first novel with cancer by the time he was diagnosed himself. "I have to admit I thought somebody didn't want me to finish the book," he says. But a stronger urge drove him on - the deep need to make himself heard. "It's wonderful to feel that through the written word you can really talk to people and make yourself understood," he says. "To get stuff down on paper and to have somebody really understand it. That's what it's all about for me."
At least it was. Today, Lavery is confined to expressing himself in song. The songs are tumbling out. But the prospect of spending another five years writing a second novel is something "I find very difficult," Lavery says. The very concept is meaningless. "There's nothing there at the end of four or five years. It's just a blank space."
Literary posterity is another blank space, of course. But buoyant, tragic Sandra Beck has as good a chance of making its mark there as any of the more celebrated titles of a fertile season.