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losing shepherd

2 june 2022

How do you review a novel where the narrator opens the book by making a fatal mistake when reviewing a novel? Gordon Bridge, novelist and protagonist of Paul Headrick's Losing Shepherd, perversely sets out to construct a scathing review of his best friend Taylor Shepherd's newest novel. Gordon knows that Taylor's book is good. He feels compelled to go out of his way to prove he's disinterested, so he pans it. The unjust review redirects both their lives, and propels Gordon to a succession of big changes.

Losing Shepherd puts a lot at stake in a book review. The novel is strong and thought-provoking. I'm not inclined to emulate its central scenario by composing a speciously negative review, so I'm safe on that score. On the other hand, at several junctures, Losing Shepherd posits just as toxic a pitfall for a writer: flattery. "Flatter no one," Gordon keeps saying till the very end of his story (297). I have no reason to flatter Paul Headrick, but flattery is not always personally directed. Entire cultures of discourse can be built on flattery, and Gordon finds such discourse corrupt. So I must not make up things to like about Losing Shepherd either.

I like the offbeat concatenation of events that leads Gordon into a new relationship and a new home. Blocked in writing new prose, feeling threatened by his wife Jessica, who tells him he has to write, Gordon embarks on a sonnet sequence. The governing theme is CBC announcers, so I am sure I miss the specific humor, but the wackiness of the idea comes through. Nominated for a poetry prize, Gordon flies to Winnipeg in the dead of winter and freezes his neck stiff. He wins the prize, but his cervical immobility gives everyone the impression that he is awfully aloof and uncommunicative. On a trip to New York, Gordon meets Trudy, a healer, who quickly becomes a significant other in his life.

Chronicling the narrator's path from there would involve plot spoilers. There are many unforeseen twists in Gordon's life. He takes readings of, and sets out to change, his bearings as son and as father. Much of the difficulty he experiences revolves around a sense of belonging. This is the inverse of many mid-life crisis stories, where a protagonist wants to break out of his milieu and find himself. Gordon does break out of his milieu, leaving Vancouver for New York, but his greatest need is to re-align his sense of community and connections to others.

I like the thinking that goes into this approach to writing about mid-life changes. Gordon remembers long-ago writing advice he'd gotten from Taylor.

The novel proper is about a modern, unguided, homeless individual, whose state is represented most concretely, efficiently, by orphanhood. This modern character struggles to find a way back home, a route to traditional belonging, yet struggles at the same time to sustain individuality. (252)
Taylor concludes that "It cannot be done"; the protagonist cannot achieve that balance, so the novelist ultimately has to kill him off.

Well, you can't kill off a first-person narrator except in special circumstances (epistolary novels and the like). So we know that Gordon Bridge will survive his friend's advice. But along the way, Gordon says he's switching genres. (Real) novel runs together with (fictional) memoir. On page 224, Gordon claims to have written the last 224 pages. Of course he has, in one sense; but only now does he specifically pose those 224 pages as a text, as opposed to the quasi-overheard storytelling that is the genre convention of most modern first-person novels. Where is this narrator going? What form will his self-creation take? You should get a copy of Losing Shepherd and find out.

I have met Paul Headrick only in the form of a few e-mail messages over the years, after I reviewed his earlier excellent novel That Tune Clutches My Heart. Yet I feel oddly woven into Losing Shepherd: at one point, Gordon Bridge refers to a review of one of his novels "written by a University of Texas prof with a book blog" (234). Gordon goes on to quote from that fictional review, which doesn't sound like me really, to the extent that a fictional review of a fictional fiction by a fictional writer can sound like any given person. Still, one important idea keeps working its way outward: writing, reading, and reviewing are not to be embarked on casually. Attention must be paid.

Headrick, Paul. Losing Shepherd. Winnipeg: Signature, 2022. PS 8615 .E245L68