Rudy Wiebe, Come Back (Toronto, ON: Knopf Canada, 2015). Hardcover, 288 pages, $26.95.
Hal Wiens, the protagonist of Rudy Wiebe’s latest novel, Come Back, is an eight-year-old boy in his first, Peace Shall Destroy Many. There, in Wapiti, Saskatchewan, in 1944, he’s a minor character, younger brother to Thom (the story’s chief wrestler with themes of peace and intolerance), a boy “gawking” or “cherubic,” enraptured by wonders both natural and mechanical. His questions are as penetrating and persistent as a child’s can be, but they arise from innocence, not struggle or doubt. To a question asked “for the tenth time” concerning a terrible happening in their isolated community, Hal’s mother simply holds him tight and says, “You’ll know some day.”
In Come Back, Hal is seventy-five, well advanced into the long “some day” of his own life and with more knowledge—“facticity” at least—of terrible happenings than he could have imagined as a child. As the novel opens, the retired professor and recent widower is drinking coffee in the Double Cup at a busy Edmonton intersection, people watching, and chatting with his friend Owl, a Dene. Owl spots a raven—unusual at an intersection. Soon after, Hal sees a man in an orange down-filled jacket passing the window, the brand familiar, the man’s profile and gait familiar too. He screams “Gabe!” and leaps up to give chase. The pursuit, which wreaks havoc in traffic, is useless; the man in the orange jacket is gone.
His son. But how can it be? Gabriel has been dead for twenty-five years.
The sighting shakes Hal to the core. Gabriel’s death was suicide, and here it is again, “that remorseless memory,” the questions surrounding it always resisted, pushed away, impossible to answer. Hal thinks he’s buried it with his late wife Yolanda, who now “eternally knew all of it.” He “need only wait” until his own death and he will know as well. But something else is waiting—the boxes of his son’s papers in the basement. He must finally confront them.
The novel unfolds over four days in spring 2010. The plot itself is slight—Hal and Owl looking for the man in the orange down-fill, Hal speaking by telephone with his other children, Hal reading for hours through Gabriel’s papers and the memorabilia Yolanda organized and saved. What compels the story irresistibly forward is the current of grief into which Hal has once again been swept, and his desperate need to “re-member” his son and find answers to pleas like “How could you imagine we could ever get over this?” and—most difficult of all—“Why?” The reader sleuths alongside eagerly, watching for clues in the documents, and watching Hal in his search.
Gabriel has left lists of words and definitions, letters, notebooks, and daily planners: evidence sometimes cryptic, sometimes fulsome. We meet a bright young man and film buff who’s wracked by shyness and a sense of unworthiness, and, in addition, obsessed with a girl—barely a teen—he fears will never be available to him. This particular obsession, while plausible, is not entirely convincing, though this may be the author’s intention. Hal seems to accept it as a major strand of his son’s despair, yet interrogates both what’s revealed and not revealed, inserting hints of other agonies; Gabriel too confuses matters, saying “even my confessions are not all that true.” However, the downward spiral of Gabriel’s depression—“I never asked to be me”—is certainly persuasive.
Gabriel’s papers, as well as Hal’s ruminations, are peppered with literary and cultural references—Kafka, Van Gogh, Rilke, Stendahl, Nabokov—but the texts upon which Hal’s deepest sorrows ride, and by which he is consoled, are the hymns and scriptures he’s known from his earliest childhood. But, he agonizes, did he talk with his son about Jesus? Although the nearly-a-preacher Hal Wiens/Rudy Wiebe seems unable to resist including a bit of a lecture about the nature and compilation of the Gospels into a conversation with his daughter Miriam, this book is removed by a considerable distance from the overt theological discussions of Peace Shall Destroy Many. Here, one feels the pervasive religious sensibility as a matter of spirit, in which Owl’s aboriginal spirituality and Hal’s “What is there to say if not God” weave companionably together. Owl sees the raven; Hal finds comfort in the faintest of pencil strokes in his son’s well-worn Bible.
Stylistically, the book is vintage Wiebe: intense, the close third-person narration not stream of consciousness exactly but a related rushed piling-up or dropping of words, and frequent shifts into first person. Hal addresses Gabriel at times angrily—“For the love of God, Gabe, DO SOMETHING WITH YOURSELF!”—or tenderly—“ O Gabriel my son, O my son, my son Gabriel.” As Hal interacts with his memories and Gabriel’s words, churning also over his regrets and failures, he creates, in effect, a line of “documents” that parallels his son’s written efforts at intimacy and truth.
Come Back grew out of the death by suicide of Rudy Wiebe’s son Michael in 1985. Wiebe insists that Gabriel is not Michael—“I’m trying to create a story,” he said at his Winnipeg launch—but that personal experience clearly animates the book’s ferocious passion. “It’s been marinating twenty-nine years,” he said. “It’s an ongoing exploration.”
Wiebe also called it an “elderly book.” This because the protagonist is elderly, of course, but also, I suspect, because Wiebe is eighty, himself elderly, and some stories are possible only after one has lived a great deal. And herein, I think, lies the significance of the link to Peace Shall Destroy Many via the character of Hal Wiens that Wiebe signals in an author’s note at the head of Come Back. Both the first book and the twenty-fifth uncover the wounds between generations, one novel community oriented and told from the perspective of sons, the other more personally focused and told from the perspective of a parent. Peace provides background; Come Back explains what eventually happened to Thom.
It must be emphasized that Come Back stands powerfully alone and can be read without acquaintance with the earlier book. What arcs between the novels, however, is a collapse of ideals into messiness, into suffering; the impossibility of figuring everything out; the mournful, humbling human cry of Erbarme dich—Kyrie eleison—Miserere mei—Have mercy. Ultimately, Wiebe suggests, the answer to Hal’s questions at seventy-five may still be his mother’s to him at eight: “You’ll know someday.”
Dora Dueck is the author of the novel This Hidden Thing and the story collection What You Get At Home. She recently won The Malahat Review’s novella contest for “Mask.” She lives in Winnipeg.