Good intelligent humour seems to be in short supply these days, especially when we could all use a little of it in our lives given the depressing dross served up as so-called “news.” An Exile’s Perfect Letter (2018, Breakwater Books) fills that need, particularly for those of us Boomers nearing retirement age like Professor Hugh Norman is. He’s sixty-two and has three more years to go. He’s also a realist about his situation:
A new life awaits, and although it’ll be much shorter than the old one, it won’t involve making a fool of oneself in front of groups of forty or fifty inattentive twenty-year-olds. And from this perspective, how unnatural does my professional life now seem. Forcing people to read poems, stories, novels, herding them into classrooms and insisting they pretend to listen to me talking about them. How cruel.
Yes, Hugh is going through the motions, realizing that he may be a “lost cause” when it comes to departmental reforms and new initiatives. He doesn’t understand young people today. He just wants to live a quiet life with his partner Maureen, who is a poet. However, a few things are preventing this just now: the death of a friend, Cliff; Andy, an overly neighbourly neighbour, and oh yes, a corpse Hugh has stumbled across in a park.
Naturally, the unforeseen death of his childhood friend Cliff causes him to reflect on mortality and his own apparent proximity to it:
I feel a certain pulse of irritation. He’s my age. Was my age. Where does he get off, doing something like that? It’s not time for people my age to die, certainly not people I know. Knew.
Then there’s the body he finds while walking in the park. Detective Gene Brazil from the Newfoundland Constabulary is somewhat intimidating and has Hugh constantly on edge, pondering whether his responses sound self-incriminating or not. He sums up what the Detective knows of him from his questioning:
Back in my study, I’m feeling both shame and fear in approximately equal intensities, ridiculous emotions both. Why should Gene Brazil have such power? Yet his dissection of my life has revealed to him and vicariously to me how absurd and morally shady an enterprise it is in the eyes of any down-to-earth guy like himself. A man drawing a salary from a public purse who doesn’t have to show up at his office, who can sit at home reading books and writing about them at his leisure, who can in the middle of the day take the time to wander aimlessly into the woods like a homeless person drunk on cheap wine. Sixty-two years old, holder of a Ph.D., and this is the best use he can make of his time?
You can see the dilemma Hugh faces. Much like when you are driving and a police car is in your rear-view mirror. Did I do something? Forget to do something? Paranoia sets in rather quickly.
What is most enjoyable and entertaining about An Exile’s Perfect Letter is Hugh’s running dialogues to himself. Whether they are about his department at the university, his friends (dead or alive) or his predicament with the corpse in the park, they are by turns humorous, yet thought-provoking to the reader as well. What considerations would we have about a childhood friend who died recently, but we hadn’t seen in many years? How would we conduct ourselves in a police investigation if we were to find a body? What interests would we have in our workplace or our jobs with retirement looming on the horizon? An Exile’s Perfect Letter excels at taking mundane occurrences and turning them inside out, both to our amusement and to our wonder. Great reading for us Boomers!
Tom Halford, the author of Deli Meat, had this to say about An Exile’s Perfect Letter:
“An Exile’s Perfect Letter is the best kind of challenging, literary fun. Larry Mathews delivers an engaging and humorous narrator, who consistently provides thoughtful commentary on everyday life. The novel is also interesting in what it does with the crime genre. Midway through An Exile’s Perfect Letter, an event occurs that would normally take place at the beginning of a crime novel. Mathews shows how such an event would be experienced by an average person. There are so many reasons to read An Exile’s Perfect Letter. These are just a few of them.”
An Exile’s Perfect Letter by Larry Mathews
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