"We're moving to the North Pole."
So begins the odyssey/debacle of Richard Winslow's life: his wife, soon to be an ex, and a once promising reputation as a poet fallen into obscurity, Winslow is a man teetering on the brink of alcoholism. Actually, he is well over the edge, floating in the chasm. What else can an unemployed poet/procrastinator/dreamer do but accept the only option, a temporary teaching position at an obscure Montana college?
Once settled in the chilly climate of his new job, Winslow finds himself inordinately attracted to a student: the tattooed, pierced and anorexic Erika Jones, possibly the only talented student in a class of bored young people. So begins an inappropriate flirtation with the girl, spending hours in existential repartee as they close down the bars. Then student and teacher embark upon a directionless road trip during school break, drifting from town to town, motel to motel, hangover to hangover. Winslow is happiest on the road with Erika, passing scotch whiskey back and forth, “It was the driving he liked, the beautiful in-between, neither here nor there, the sense of beginning.”
Winslow is aware of the impropriety of his actions but so caught up in the moment that he cannot relinquish his fantasy, allowing himself yet one more respite from reality. Aware that he is irrevocably broken, Winslow muses: “How many cast off selves he carried inside him.” This protagonist is never at a loss for excuses, his self-destructive behavior a magnet to the equally self-abusive Erika as they shuffle along in a slow dance of annihilation, sinking toward oblivion, content with pseudo-love.
The dishonesty of this nihilistic journey lies in the facade of attraction between the protagonists, a bloodless passion with fleeting moments of emotional frisson for window dressing. The author does make some effort to redeem his characters; certainly Winslow vaguely reaches toward the light, but he is predictably defeated by his own actions. Perhaps Winslow sparks a latent curiosity in the rarefied world Erika inhabits, nursing visions of greatness but incapable of writing anything of consequence.
Erika is drawn to the hopeless Winslow as to a shadow self, albeit a much larger one, the reversed roles of Jack Spratt and his fairy tale wife. “He’s drunk it’s true. But the thing is, his feelings are true.” It is this kind of statement that undermines the premise of Canty’s novel. Nothing about Winslow's world is based in truth. This is a man who craves constant oblivion, and he needs company on his sad adventure.
This is a journey with no destination, a depressing trip across a desolate emotional landscape, each character reflecting the other, treading water until life intervenes, the poignant tedious after too many nights of oblivion. Alcoholism is a recurring theme in Canty’s novels. Let's hope Winslow in Love purges these demons so that the talented writer can begin his next work.