Monday, March 14, 2011

Hay - Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on Air, Elizabeth Hay, McClelland and Stewart, 2007.

A group of characters work together at a radio station in the summer of 1975. Harry Boyd, Dido, Eddy, Eleanor, Gwen, Ralph.

These are the main five characters, but others appear occasionally, each crisply drawn and given life. The book chronicles story of their lives together working at the station over a year. The reader experiences their shifting friendships and loyalties. Each major character is given time as the viewpoint character. Their personalities and motives are explored, their feelings toward the world around them and of the other characters is revealed. But little is certain. Feelings grow between some characters and then fade, or emotion lurks beneath the surface then grows as the year or years pass. The interplay between these characters shifts and remains complex. Even among friends an opinion, a judgement, may differ on a third character. This richness and variability are the novels strengths. The characters seem real, nothing between them is pat or too easy.

The main characters are arguably Gwen and Harry. Gwen is a rookie in the radio business who drove to Yellowknife alone. Harry is a former radio star who bombed in a try at television and took the radio job as a sort mutual favor slash exile. But arguments could be made that Dido and Eleanor, and in the final part of the book Ralph are equal characters. Yet the view point we see more often is either Harry or Gwen.

Eddy is present throughout much of the novel and is given a brief time as the view-point character, letting us only briefly inside his head. His personality does not travel much beyond the belligerent, ambitious, and talented character he appears to be at the novel's beginning. We do not learn why he is so relentlessly hostile to Harry. That Harry has failed at tv and is back where his career began is part of it. Perhaps that is all the explanation the author intended. But it is insufficient.

Dido is described as broad shouldered, with narrow hips and big hands. In short, she is described as a man. Why the author has done this is a mystery. All the men find her irresistible, yet in real life they would not. Her physical description is not an attractive one. Is there meant to be a hint ofe form the book's beginning. She is said to have a attractive voice, and that is something, but not enough given her mannish appearance and unlikeable personality. Still, in real life a woman friend said she thought Dido 'sensual'.

Another character is the land itself. Hay writes as someone intimately familiar with Yellowknife and the northern landscape. The land's smells, its sights, its feel. All come alive in careful evocative detail. The presence of the land is a force, a living character, throughout the book. The second to last section concerns a long trip into the back country by four of the characters. It sets up like the novel's pentultimate section, but it is not. There are important developments on that trip, it changes several lives, but more story remains. The book continues to follow and develop several characters, and leads finally to a (too long to be believable) long-delayed realization for two of them.

Death pervades the book. Not always on stage but as a lurking presence. A few of the characters die. But beyond that, death is always referred to. Either offstage deaths of relatives, or the repeated theme of a long lost, long dead, arctic explorer and his entire party. It could be argued that death is another central character. Though not always center stage, it or its possibility is ever present, a part of the landscape, a part of life in the north country, as envisioned by the author.

Harry takes the job as a temporary position. This gives him leeway to experiment and try anything he likes since he doesn't expect the job to last anyway. In radio he has great confidence. Remember first, this is the seventies. He gives increased responsibility to women as radio personalities, reporters, newsreaders. Some of the men are angry. Harry experiments in other ways. Some things work, some do not. Many of his staff become angry and plan rebellion. This portrayal of seventies society is yet another well-drawn and interesting part of this excellent novel.

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