Review: Failure to Thrive by Jeff Oliver

April 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

155 pages, DC Books, www.dcbooks.ca, $18.95 

For his first novel, Jeff Oliver assembles a cartoon from the people and places he knows best: when a Toronto reality TV producer (Oliver is a programming executive at the Food Network) learns he has a massive brain tumour on the same day he discovers his wife cheating on him, he unofficially kidnaps his son (Oliver also has a wife and young son) and tries to secure his parental legacy immediately. Cue zany music, and Failure to Thrive’s protagonist, Jonathan Farb, begins the mad dash through a gauntlet of fatherly rites of passage. After taking his infant son to a strip club and bribing a rabbi to perform his bar mitzvah 12 years early, Farb completes the proposal for his satirical reality TV masterpiece, Canada’s Next Great Apologist.

However conventional, this plot was made for caricature-driven comedy. No action is too absurd because Farb is driven by imminent death, and its approach sets up a natural study of characters under pressure.

The problem is, Oliver’s characters do not seem drawn from life at all. Instead of emphasizing the surprising details of, say, a young, ambitious, 21st Century, Jewish TV producer, he simplifies Farb into a stereotype of a money-hungry, over-neurotic, unsexy-but-lascivious Jew, straight out of a Richler parody written 40 years too late. Consequently, whatever satirical point those characters make about their outdated society is irrelevant and barbless.

And then Oliver blunts what remaining joy might be gotten out of the words alone with careless vocabulary. Canada’s Next Great Apologist, Farb tells his bosses, functions as a comment on the Canadian tendency to over-apologize (to First Nations and Japanese detainees, for example—apparently these apologies are satire-worthy). Of course, “apologist” does not, in any sense—ever—mean someone who apologizes. Conventional is one thing, not funny is another, blithering is yet another, but borderline offensive demands a whole new, unwarranted, level of tolerance, even from a first-time novelist.

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