November 4, 2013
Review By David Tracey
Pinboy is a tender account of an adolescent penis growing up in the South Okanagan around 1950. Because it is attached to a gawky, bright, funny, boy who loved reading enough to carry cowboy novels or sports magazines in the back pocket of his corduroys, and because that boy grew up to be the first Poet Laureate of Canada, naturally we’re interested. A tad daunted, perhaps, if we’ve never read him, because isn’t a Poet Laureate supposed to get all erudite and overwrought and determined to wrench the deepest significance out of what might seem like everyday occurrences to us lesser attuned beings?
Thankfully not when it’s British Columbia’s own George Bowering, as fiercely democratic a literary artist as you’ll hope to find. He may be the author of dozens of books, winner of two Governor-General’s literary awards, and an Officer of the Order of Canada, but you can leave your dictionary on the shelf and settle in for an amiable tale full of nostalgia and humour. Not just about a penis, of course, although it seems that way, given its prominence in the life of a fifteen-year-old trying to be a good boy while a hormonal tide floods within him.
The title refers to one of Bowering’s odd jobs as a “skinny, hopeless jerk” setting pins in the Oliver Bowling Lanes while secretly ogling the bodies of the female customers, including some of his teachers. Curiously, after the first chapter we never go back inside the bowling alley. Instead, the book is spent largely outdoors under the baking Okanagan sun. We learn a lot about summer life in the orchards picking apples and peaches and hiking in the dry hills looking out for rattlesnakes and cactus. The action may be hot and sweaty from the fruit picking or occasional sexual encounter, but the scenery is often lovely and a worthy evocation of the region.
Bowering is also deft at describing the landscapes of the bodies of the women fuelling his physical obsessions: his girlfriend, the daughter of a British orchard owner; an enigmatic classmate who mistakes Bowering’s noble interest for voyeurism, but may be right after all; and a teacher with a short, wide, but nonetheless muscular body that is athletic enough to be alluring.
A master of self-deprecation, even about his own writing, Bowering’s style as a memoirist is often to step back from the scene he’s about to depict to explain his own reluctance or inability to capture what it was really like. This is especially so for the sexual episodes in which he dawdles on the page, then tells us he’s dawdling, then finally gets into the juicy details of the encounter. “Well, I have to tell you that I don’t have any power of imagination,” he warns us early on. “I am not re-creating any of this stuff. I think it all happened”(23).
That may be so. And George Bowering may be the only boy in history to be ordered to read aloud a Wordsworth poem on Dionysian rites while his teacher introduces him to fellatio. I am ready to believe it, just as I’m ready to believe the rest, such as where he navigates the tricky path to sexual maturity and embarks on an adulthood where words and feelings would serve him very well. The formative years surely helped him develop the skills necessary to write a book recapturing a time long gone in ways that still ring true. It’s the best kind of nostalgia, one that makes you think wistfully back on your own fifteen-year-old life. It could not have been done if the author were not still infused with some of that teenager’s verve and decency and wit. The boy is still very much a part of the man, and we’re all the better off for it.
By George Bowering
Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2012. 320 pp, $29.95 cloth