In some ways, it is all the fault of a lapel pin. That’s when it all began to fall apart for Dr. Philip Sharpe, Professor of philosophy at Canada’s most prestigious university and the author of a number of hit pop-intellectual books. It was the lapel pin that caused him to be distracted as he prepared to be a guest on a fiery CBC national affairs panel. The lapel pin caused a family fight, which caused him to be late, which led ultimately to the slip.
And it was the slip that matters.
His slip—really one of the only truly shocking things someone in a high-profile position could say these days—becomes an internet phenomenon, a hot point for campus-wide protest, and the centre of a national debate. Fortunately, though, Sharpe is entirely clueless about the impact because he has no idea that it has happened. He was seriously distracted during his TV performance and made an off-hand remark that he did not meant and did not remember. Sharpe is so bombastically pretentious that he thinks the public hullaballoo is about a slight philosophic error he made about applied law. Confident that the issue is overdrawn, he simply batch-deletes his facebook notifications, ignores his email, and fixes another one of his signature drinks.
This turns out to be a very bad idea.
The hole-in-the-bucket comedy of errors that led to this slip of gargantuan significance begins to rock every confident foundation that Philip Sharpe has relied upon in his breezy, quick-shot-to-the-top career. Puzzled and perpetually on the edge of being drunk, Sharpe scrambles as career, family, and friendships all slide sideways in the worst week of his life. He even loses his superhero talent of writing profound essays with absolute ease. At one point he finds himself in an empty house, drunk before noon as his students have boycotted his class, and staring at blinking cursor on a blank page.
As I noted in my review of his Sad Peninsula, Sampson is a novelist who is fairly comfortable with disintegration. As readers, we have no idea where this will go. Sampson writes the loser well, in this case creating a character in Philip Sharpe who is absolutely despicable.
Yet Sharpe is not without sympathy—and not just because he makes everything so very much worse by his own boyish self-delusion. Told in first-person over-confident jackass prose, Sharpe takes us back to the critical moments of “how I got to be the man I am today.” The result is a mental trip back to his roots in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, growing up in (what I take to be) a fictional version of a seedy Sydney Street pub. This anti-Anne of Green Gables storytelling actually draws the reader into some really nice moments about PEI—and some truths about what life is like for the orphans who don’t find Matthew and Marilla, and about life in the poorer parts of this quaint city.
As Sharpe narrows his accelerating orbit around the frightening reality of shedding his own well-worn self-delusion, he begins to discover that he is not so far as he imagined from the white trash home he fled as a star student bound for Toronto and Oxford. Developing a sense of space and moments of revelation in elegant ways, Sampson shows that Sharpe has truly built his Cabbagetown mansion upon the sand.
The Slip also makes true C.S. Lewis’ dictum that you can’t take all luggage on every journey. There are choices we make in life, and something won and lost at each bend in the road. The question, I suppose, is whether Sharpe will have anything left to win when he begins to recognize his right from his left.
Inappropriately crude and unapologetically Canadian, The Slip is going to be an alienating book to some. You don’t actually need to know much about Toronto to read this book: I’ve been enjoying books about Portland, London, Oxford, and San Francisco long before I ever found my feet on those streets. Perhaps more than the Canadianness or even the crudity is the curious way that Sampson draws together Sydney Street vulgarity with fairly intelligent conversations about philosophy, economics, religion, and society. Philip Sharpe’s favourite drink—a Bloody Joseph—is exactly the right metaphor for the book: there’s a generous squeeze of Heinz ketchup with the double shot of Irish whiskey. The journey from Sydney Street to Metcalfe Street is shorter than many people think, but few writers have been able to draw that dotted line on the map so well.
The Slip lacks the weighty, could-be-classic nature of Sad Peninsula. Yet I suspect that Sampson’s new novel will get more traction with readers. It is fast-paced, witty, smart, and plays to the Philip Sharpe lurking inside many of us.
Mark Sampson is Toronto novelist who grew up in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He is launching The Slip (Dundurn Press) in Charlottetown on Thursday, Jun 28th, 6:30 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Joining Sampson in a double book launch is his wife, Rebecca Rosenblum, with her debut novel, So Much Love (McClelland & Stewart). Rosenblum has just been shortlisted for the $40,000 Amazon.ca/Walrus Foundation First Novel Prize, and is reviewing well.
And just a quick encouragement for you to read and review local authors. Though Sampson and Rosenblum are signed by strong Canadian firms, it is a big book world. Even a Goodreads recommendation or quick Facebook post can help emerging authors find their feet in the difficult economy of the author.