CanLit Fridays: Ray Robertson’s I Was There the Night He Died

A man loses his wife, is losing his father, and is finding his way back to life by writing about music and smoking pot with a teen.

CanLit Fridays ray

“Ray Robertson is one of those rare writers who has both swagger and soul.” — NOW Magazine 

Many know of Ray’s novel David, or his “anti-self-help guide,” Why Not? 15 Reasons to Live, which was a finalist for the 2011 Hilary Weston Prize, featured on George Stroumboulopoulos’s The Hour, and recently adapted into a mini-series by TVO.

 This spring, Ray released the novel I Was There the Night He Died. Its main character, Sam Samson, is going through a lot: a dead wife, a dead mother, and a father riddled with Alzheimer’s.

His wife’s death was the result of a car accident the police deemed as “probably her fault” for merging too soon. “When I wasn’t too tired, I was angry at her for that in particular, and for dying in general.”

As a novelist, Sam finds that material too raw to write about yet. Instead, he finds himself writing a non-fiction book about musicians, as a means to forget about the novel he ins’t not writing.

“I’m not going to write a novel about Sara dying because writing a novel makes things go away. Writing a novel is one long delicious scratch that makes the itching stop for good.”

Writers who read the novel will enjoy Sam’s acerbic, accurate humour surrounding the life of a novelist as well, from the financial dreariness of the profession to your non-reader friends feeling obligated to buy your stuff.

It’s an interesting, maybe even intentional dynamic that the main character is struggling to forget much hardship, while tending to a father who has lost all memories (including the sorts of painful memories from which Sam would like release).

Nothing he’s doing to distract himself is working, and in the lull and limbo of waiting for new direction in life, only music, and writing about it, is helping.

The restorative power of music, or at least its ability to effortlessly help us cope with a hardship, is a sentiment shared by the author. Robertson says music is better than drugs because it’s “alternatively uplifting and pacifying, always there when you need it, and you never feel like dying in the morning.”

We meet the main character of this novel on a bus back to his hometown of Chatham, Ontario, where his uncle picks him up to go meet his Alzheimer-rattled father. Upon taking in the hometown from which he long ago fled, Sam wisecracks a motto for the place, “Out with the young, stuck with the old.” All the novel’s jabs at Chatham only reveal a certain charmed understand of where he the character is from. It’s something many readers from smaller towns will appreciate.

While sorting out his father’s affairs, Sam stays at his parents’ empty home, surrounded by many framed photos of him, happier, with his dead wife in his arms. But it’s here in this neighbourhood he meets a pot-smoking “teenage girl with a nosering” when she catches him trying to light a joint in a park. An unlikely friendship ensues, fuelled by a mutual sadness and desire to get high and appreciate good music while that loneliness subsides.

The tone of the novel leans towards levity and light-heartedness moreso than a pathos-filled weighty melancholy. In fact, the potential for positive change in these character’s lives is always as evident as their woes. As dark as death and loss and burying our pasts may be, it’s also the most likely starting grounds for a new beginning. In fact, Robertson has said that if he wants his readers to come away from the novel with one impression it’s that they “feel more alive than when they started it.”

Robertson’s style of writing is exceptionally readable; you’ll fall right into this book. His writing is wry, full of a poet’s wisdom in its observations on life and death, and replete with a dark (read honest) kind of wit.

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