No endings at all

By Amy Reiswig, June 2011

Jack Hodgins’ latest novel explores ageing and how it’s never too late to take new risks.

We have all been taught not to judge a book by its cover. But in the case of Jack Hodgins’ The Master of Happy Endings, it is actually an apt introduction to one of the book’s major ideas. For the jacket presents you with the title, in bold yellow on red, and then together in their own black circle “Jack Hodgins A Novel,” as if the author is the real read here. This strange arrangement reminds us that the real story, the true epic, is on the inside of each one of us. 

Raised in rural Merville in the Comox Valley and now living in Cadboro Bay, Hodgins is indeed a man of epic creativity, having published 14 books—including novels, a writing guide, travel, and children’s literature—as well as stories and articles in a long list of periodicals. As a writer and former English teacher, Hodgins’ honours and awards read like the roll call of victories in heroic sagas: the Governor General’s Award, Commonwealth Writers Prize, Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, Canada-Australia Prize, and Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award. He is a member of the Royal Society of Canada and the Order of Canada, has been awarded several honorary degrees, and has a literary award and TV character (in the popular series Bones) named after him. 

This year The Master of Happy Endings (Thomas Allen, 2010) has garnered more accolades, both local and international, as it was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize (BC Book Prizes) and Monday Magazine’s M award for favourite fiction book by a Victoria writer.

Hodgins, exuberant and looking very easy-going in a blue shirt that matches his kind eyes, is slightly incredulous about and grateful for all his literary success, especially since he feels this most recent book is based on two very risky propositions. “I’m writing about small places on the west coast—that’s risky. How many people are interested in that?” he wonders over coffee at Moka House in Cook Street Village. “And this story’s also about an old man—that’s risk number two.” But risk, as the book explores, is essential to life, and danger is one of our best self-testing grounds.

The “master” of the book’s title is 77-year-old Axel Thorstad, a widower and retired English teacher living on the small (and fictitious) Estevan Island. Again suggesting the epic of the individual, Thorstad is not only named but framed to conjure the realm of myth: he is described as “taller than everyone else and fiercely unbent,” “a figure descended from Norwegian giants” and “a lank Goliath wading through the underbrush.” 

Like many mythological figures, Thorstad finds himself in exile from the world after a life of battle—in his case, battle in the high school classroom, where he was determined to help students reach their hopefully “happy endings.” But Thorstad’s life of peaceful retirement proves to be a danger internally, and he reflects on “the dangerous isolation of this place” where he grapples with the very palpable absence of his wife and the perpetual mystery of the death of his Hollywood stunt-double father just before Thorstad was born. 

An aged man afraid of his own ageing, Thorstad therefore takes one last big risk: he puts what he calls an adoption request in the newspaper, advertising tutoring in exchange for living with a family back in “the world.” The epistolary responses he receives are both hilarious and heartbreaking, and every envelope is a potential source of danger—threatening his peace of mind and faith in happy endings. He hears from former students, strangers, people looking for kinds of help he both can and cannot give.

“These letters are dangerous but also an impetus to creativity,” Hodgins tells me, “an antidote to complacency, to thinking that everyone’s life is the way we imagine it.” And that includes Thorstad’s own. For Hodgins believes that no matter our age, we are never done learning about ourselves. “You forget about your age,” Hodgins says of his own experience: “Living other people’s lives”—whether through creating fictional characters or through Thorstad’s kind of commitment to helping others—“keeps you young…that is, if it doesn’t wear you out,” he laughs. 

Eventually, Thorstad accepts an invitation from a rich couple in Victoria and the exile returns, but to a world “much changed since he’d said good-bye to civilization.” What follows is the story of Thorstad’s relationship with the couple’s teenaged actor son and a trip to the uber-urban world of L.A., “a city as magical as it was dangerous,” where Thorstad confronts not only the speed and greed of the present world but his own past—and future. 

Torn between movement and stillness, involvement and retreat, Thorstad’s push and pull with environments and people are his ways of working out his inner orientation, and Hodgins shows that there is no need to rest at one pole or the other, no need to choose between them. “Life is fluid and shifting,” he says, “and we have to be open to the opportunities we never expected”—a view Hodgins himself continues to live by, as he is currently participating in a collaborative novel experiment with Unlimited Editions as well as in a project he wouldn’t talk about, except to say that it involves music. 

An optimist, Hodgins believes (and notes that it’s one of the title’s ironies) that there are no such things as endings. Certainly there seems no end in sight to Hodgins career, enthusiasm or willingness to take risks. This freedom from endings is because everything—even a person, through their sprit or their ideas—is ultimately transferred and carried on in the heads and hearts of others. As Hodgins explains with a characteristic infectious, genuine grin over the din of a coffee grinder, “the real world is what’s inside.” 

In honour of the fluid and shifting nature of life and, these days, government, writer and editor Amy Reiswig is learning to embrace the fluxus quo.