Lee Gowan, Confession

Dwight Froese is a sullen elementary-school janitor who grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan with the ominous name of Broken Head. Confession, the tempting but bland new novel from Toronto’s Lee Gowan, doubles as Dwight’s fragmented journal of his childhood, which he plans to covertly present to Caroline, a student at the school who has no idea that the janitor is also her biological father.

Violence, it turns out, pervades more of Dwight’s childhood than just the name of his hometown. After finding his mother’s body floating in the creek near the family farm, Dwight assumes the worst and kills his father, an abusive gun dealer who lost an arm in World War II, in an old-fashioned duel. In the aftermath, Dwight is celebrated as a local hero, becomes a strangely devout Christian, and falls for the daughter of the town coroner—a man who shatters Dwight’s confidence by officially declaring his mother’s death an accident.

Gowan takes great pains to show the present-day Dwight as an unsophisticated, artless type, but constantly intrudes on his first-person voice to punch up his plain language—making it slightly more literary, maybe, but significantly less believable. After an out-of-nowhere war metaphor, for example, a thinly veiled Gowan tries to cover his tracks: “Excuse the poetry. I’ve never seen a battlefield.”

Funny, too, how this ostensibly scattershot diary of Dwight’s memories and feelings is just as finely tuned and intricately structured as, well, a novel would be.

Gowan at once overplays his hand as the book’s hidden architect and elsewhere disappears at the precise moment the reader wants more from him. At one point, Dwight describes how his father took over as his school’s bus driver. This is a man, it is worth remembering, who, in addition to having a terrifying prosthetic limb, is a known drunk and a weapons collector. No attempt at justification is made—it seems that Gowan thought up a plot point and simply shoehorned it into the existing text.

Even a child like Caroline would have a hard time buying that.

Knopf Canada, 251 pp, $29.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, March 5, 2009)

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