The Heavy Bear is Tim Bowling’s latest novel and like In the Suicide’s Library (2004) its focus is on the ghosts of great male artists.
Where In the Suicide’s Library meanders around the lives of Wallace Stevens and Weldon Keese, The Heavy Bear tracks the ghosts of Buster Keaton and Delmore Shwartz. It begins with Bowling’s protagonist, also named Tim Bowling, being haunted by the shadowy figure of Buster Keaton and bear spirit of Delmore Shwartz in his bedroom and what proceeds from there is both the history of Buster Keaton, and the history of middle-aged men who struggle to make meaningful connections between their working lives and their artistic pursuits. What is immediately striking, however, is this emphasis on the lives of men. Bowling writes:
“The same world of commerce that deprived readers of whatever greatness Herman Melville might have achieved after Moby Dick if he’d been encouraged is the same world that deprived filmgoers of the brilliance Keaton and Orson Welles might have achieved had their genius been celebrated and financed instead of quashed” (8).
What of women artists of this time? Surely “the world of commerce” did more to quash the artistic pursuits of women than it did of men, but they are curiously absent of any brief mention.
This emphasis on men is perhaps the point—the novel is, after all, about a middle-aged man looking to other middle-aged men to make sense of his own place in time—but Bowling’s romanticization of these male artists, and himself (or at least his fictional counterpart), as geniuses whose work has been sullied by the machinations of capitalism seems a tad self-indulgent. Indeed, the first half of the novel is mired in this self-pity as the fictional Tim Bowling just can’t bring himself to teach his first year English course.
However, the novel begins to pick up around the halfway mark with the introduction of Chelsea, or Chels, a first year student, and a strange antique magician bank that the protagonist purchases from a homeless person. From here, the fictional Tim Bowling and Chelsea begin an adventure that involves stealing a capuchin monkey from a derelict pet shop and getting into a deadly fight with a chess player.
Even with all this action, however, Bowling’s writing is best when he concentrates on the life of Buster Keaton and lovingly describes his many movies. Of Keaton’s movie Sherlock Jr. he writes:
“When Buster trails the villain, he really trails the villain—right on his heels, mimicking every move, right down to the tossed cigarette butt over his shoulder after he’d puffed on it (he had caught the one just tossed but the villain). All his years of vaudeville training came to the fore here—no athlete in the history of sport has every required more timing and revelled in the requirement. No comedian better understood the gag power of repetition and duplication better than Keaton” (30).
Here, Bowling’s writing really becomes animated and focused. His care and attention to Keaton’s life comes across as genuine and engaging, where his introspections about middle-aged life tread dangerously close to tired tropes. However, these asides about Keaton slowly dissolve as the novel progresses and Schwartz’s bear presence becomes more prominent.
Overall, Bowling’s novel in an amusing read sprinkled with interesting asides about the life and work of Buster Keaton and Delmore Shwartz, even if it takes a few chapters to really get moving.
The Heavy Bear
by Tim Bowling
Hamilton, ON, Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd., 2017
234 pp., $20 paper
Caitlin Voth is an MA student in English at UBC’s Okanagan campus where she is studying the Canadian private press. She has worked in the Humanities Data Lab at UBC, and is intrigued by how traditional books and technology come together in the Digital Humanities. In her spare time, she is learning the intricate craft of letterpress printing.