Late Nights on Air
Reviewed: June 25, 2008
By: Elizabeth Hay
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
364 pages, $22.00
It's odd how the North grabs hold of some of the folks that live there just
a few years and never quite lets go.
Elizabeth Hay is one of those persons. Having lived and worked as a CBC broadcaster
in Yellowknife during the heyday of the Berger Inquiry, she was moved to try
to capture the ambiance of that period in this novel.
To those who recall the Berger and Lysyk inquiries, with their first burst of
the eternal pipedream - uhm - pipeLINE optimism that has recurred over the decades
since, this book will bring back a lot of memories. Who would have believed,
then, that an unknown judge's report would become a bestseller and delay the
desires of the oil companies for so many years?
As Elizabeth Hay explained it when I had the chance to meet her and discuss
this book, the characters are not quite based on real people, even though some
of them must seem familiar to regular radio listeners.
There are several story arcs in this novel., Some of them are about people and
some are just about the time period.
Harry Boyd is failed media star, a man who rose to fame on radio and blew it
all on television, only to be relegated to a tiny station in what the powers
that be would have considered the back of beyond. One cannot, I think, read
about Harry without seeing in him the man Peter Gzowski might have become after
the fiasco of 90 Minutes Live if not for his Morningside resurrection.
Harry did not revive however, but went to Yellowknife and fell in love with
a voice on the radio. The voice turned out to belong to Dido Paris, whose physical
presence fulfilled every promise Harry had heard in her voice.
The second lead character in the book is Gwen Symon, who apparently takes some
of her early diffidence from the author herself, whose early radio career is
partitioned among a couple of the characters in the book. Gwen doesn't really
want to be a broadcaster, She would prefer to work behind the scenes, but the
job that's available is the one she takes, as a news reader. When she turns
out to be not very good at that Harry, whom a twist of fate has made the acting
station manager, puts her on the night shift and there, slowly, she blossoms.
There are other significant characters. There's Ralph Cody, who comes in to
do book reviews. There's Eleanor, the receptionist who also functions as gatekeeper
to the small station, and develops an interest in religion. There's Eddy, the
technician and photographer whose stormy relationship with Dido shapes her life
as well as Harry's.
I mentioned arcs. These peoples' lives crisscross each other like graphs of
mad quadratic equations all plotted on the same grid. Relationships come and
go like afternoon rainstorms on a sunny day in Dawson.
People who seem to be so strong turn out not to be. The timid ones shed their
inhibitions. Spirituality overtakes people who weren't seeking it.
The land shapes them all. While most of the book takes place in the city, the
last third retraces the final journey of that strange Arctic explorer, John
Hornby, as four members of the cast seek adventure and meaning in a summer long
excursion by canoe.
A number of very important things happen to them out there. They get lost. They
find each other. They have encounters with nature and with the infinite.
And if I told you much more than that I would be spoiling several climaxes.
An unusual feature of this novel is that there are two codas to the main story,
each wrapping up some loose plot threads. One takes place eight years after
the Yellowknife period, and the other takes place an unspecified period of time
later on, quietly bringing to an end one of the arcs that began the novel.
I did not expect to like this book so much. I picked it up because I was going
to meet the author, expecting to read it out of duty over a week or two. Instead
I devoured it in great chunks over a few days, setting aside several other books
(I read two or three at a time) in its favour.