Star Phoenix Review - Wiseman's Wager

Reviewed by: Bill Robertson, Saskatoon Star Phoenix

The indefatigable Saskatoon writer Dave Margoshes is back with another novel - hot on the heels of his latest collection of short stories - and in many respects it comes as a meditation on grief, death, family, loyalty and the writing life, wrapped in a story of a wry old man recounting his life in fits, starts and evasions.

Zan Wiseman, 82, lands in the emergency ward in a Calgary hospital after flying in from Las Vegas to visit his only remaining sibling. Like a foolish traveller joking about bombs in an airport lineup, Zan jokes about suicide and is promptly routed to a psychologist by a concerned doctor. Now Margoshes has a way for Zan to tell us his long and meandering story. Dr. Zelda asks the questions and Zan plays with his answers, first of all noting the doctor has the same name as F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife.

Oh yes, this is a very literate novel with allusions to such writers as Pascal, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe and the literary highlighting of iconic CBC radio host Peter Gzowski. The names aren't just dropped because Margoshes is literate, too. Zan is a novelist, somewhat famous for one novel he wrote way back in the early-'30s, reprinted in the '70s and his ticket to conferences and university classrooms since. But that's it. One novel. As Zan makes clear very early to Dr. Zelda, he's a failed novelist.

"Novelist, that's the noun. Failed, that's the adjective. And not just novelist either - failed husband, failed son, failed brother, failed friend, failed Communist ... You name it, I failed at it."

That's what pushes this novel along, the stories of how this 82-yearold man who failed at making a joke about killing himself has failed at so many other things, at least according to him.

Zan takes us through his growing up in Winnipeg at the time of the General Strike of 1919. There's life in the Jewish section with a milkman father, a dead twin and a couple of brothers who turn to crime. They're poor, Zan's smart and he jumps at the chance to be taken in by an older shiksa - a gentile woman - and professor of English. She encourages his literary aspirations as he tries his identity as a student, a lover, a writer, a member of the Communist party and a good Jewish son. It's hard to balance them all.Zan does no better with the rest of his life: Toronto during the Great Depression, back through Winnipeg and up to the lakes region, down to Las Vegas with another woman, all the time trying to balance his artistic instinct with being a husband, a loyal brother to men who lead desperate lives and to the Party, "the warm feeling of belonging, the unsettled feeling of being adrift when it ended."

And there's the rub as Margoshes, the lifelong writer, sees it. How many masters can you serve and serve well? Can you be a serious artist - a writer in Zan's case - and be a devoted husband, loyal brother or unswerving Party member? For once in his life, at the urging of the woman who keeps him, he forsakes all others and writes, producing his one novel. Then the Party assaults him with accusations of selling out to the bourgeois. Oh, that stings. So he tries to write a people's novel with the local Party boss on his shoulder as editor. That can't work.

Zan lives his whole life running from loyalty to loyalty, serving all but himself. As Zan tells Zelda: "When you're a novelist and you don't write novels ... you might as well be dead."

In this large novel, Margoshes takes all the time he needs to tell Zan's many stories, using the excuse of his narrator's evasiveness to circle around to meditate on how hard it is to be true to one's art. He holds back what readers know has to be coming, what Zan won't say about one wife, what really is Wiseman's Wager and what it is Zan seems to be getting at now that he's telling all his stories to Zelda. Margoshes could have done it all in fewer pages, no doubt about that, but that's not how grief over time lost and lives lost works.

Writer's block is a killer and Zan Wiseman's had it for more than 50 years, so it takes some time for him to work through it. He does a lot of colourful living and dying along the way.

To read the full review, click here.

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