Where dysfunction and survival intersect

Donald Harington is the author of 15 novels about the Arkansas Ozarks, including, most recently, "Farther Along."

The Flying Troutmans

A Novel

Miriam Toews

Counterpoint: 278 pp., $24

Not SINCE Stephen Leacock have our neighbors to the north given us a writer as witty and wise as Miriam Toews.

Stephen who? A hundred years ago, more Americans had heard of Leacock than of Canada, where he has remained a national hero long after Americans have forgotten him.

And Miriam who? Her previous masterpiece, “A Complicated Kindness,” spent a year on Canadian bestseller lists, although in America her fame has been limited to the many book discussion groups that have embraced her.


That is about to change. Toews’ name is pronounced to rhyme with “raves,” which many reviews of “The Flying Troutmans,” including this one, will be. Like “A Complicated Kindness” and her other novels, it is about growing up in small-town Canada, about a disrupted or dysfunctional family and the members’ relationships with one another and the world. There is a search for someone missing. There is a great effort to keep things from falling apart, and a hilarious comedy when things do fall apart despite the best efforts of the characters, who hang on for dear life and fly by the seat of their pants.

That sort of flying isn’t what is meant by the title. It would spoil a key moment of the ending to reveal just what the title means, but it has nothing to do with a family of trapeze artists. The only acrobatics are those of the nimble author who, with great style and a pitch-perfect ear for teen slang and contemporary pop culture, strides boldly out across the tightrope, with no safety net below, just the abyss of absurdity and the chasm of slapstick, into which she never falls.

It takes a great novelist to pull off such an act, leaving the reader alternating between gasps of awe and peals of laughter. “LOL” has become commonplace on the Internet -- despite statistics showing that only 2.7% of people who write that acronym are actually laughing out loud (and of those, only 0.2% are actually rolling on the floor).

Toews can tickle the dickens out of you. Which, alas, will prevent her eventual consideration for the Nobel Prize. In the curious history of that honor, all the great writers who couldn’t wipe the grins off their faces were ignored by whoever chooses winners for that prize. Mark Twain never got it. Leacock didn’t. Vladimir Nabokov didn’t. The only remotely funny writer who got it was John Steinbeck, whose award has been controversial ever since.

Toews couldn’t care less. She is out to entertain with words, and the tale of the flying Troutmans is her best entertainment yet. The family troupe of non-acrobats is small; there are only three of them. The first is Hattie Troutman, 28, our narrator, who almost qualifies as a spinster. Her boyfriend in Paris has dumped her for another woman, and she has come home to Canada to look after her nephew and niece, whose mother, Hattie’s older sister Min, is “in meetings with the voices in her head” and has been removed yet again to a mental hospital.

Then there is the nephew, Logan Troutman, 15, who keeps a condom in his shoe, has been known to use it, aspires to celebrity in basketball and makes Holden Caulfield look foolish. But he says very little, suffering from stage fright. And, finally, there is Hattie’s niece, Logan’s sister Theodora Troutman, 11, who is called “Thebes” by everyone. The most precocious girl of her age you’ll find in all of literature, she is the novel’s true hero, if there is one. She has dyed her hair purple and believes that bathing is for the birds. Unlike her taciturn brother, she cannot stop talking, and while her Aunt Hattie is the story’s narrator, Thebes does a better job of moving the story, such as it is, along.

The story. It gives new meaning to the idea of “picaresque.” In one of her saner moments, Min had thrown her husband, Cherkis, out of the house, and he had last been heard of managing a sort of art gallery in the wilds of South Dakota.

Hattie persuades the nephew and niece to go truant, load the van and hit the road in search of Cherkis. Their road trip, which Jack Kerouac would have envied, takes up the balance of the book, and it is not only a great adventure but also a fabulous series of encounters. Neither kid ever asks, “Are we there yet?” because the journey is the joy. They don’t find Cherkis in South Dakota but learn he might be in California, and the journey continues across western America, down through Utah and Arizona, the three of them staying in cheap motels or under the stars, and meeting up with all manner of odd and even folk, including “an older guy in a suit and a girl with a ponytail” who allude to Humbert Humbert with his Lo.

Parts of the book might be subtitled “101 Ways to Keep the Kids Amused During Long Car Trips.” But it is Thebes who comes up with the best diversions: word games (“Who would you rather have as a boyfriend? Frankenstein or George Bush?”), singing songs (mostly by the Beatles and Lucinda Williams), making manifestoes, constant commentary on the passing scene, creating art with her art supplies and, most of all, telling each other their memories of their fractured pasts.

Will they ever find Cherkis? In “Summer of My Amazing Luck,” Toews told of another search for a missing father who had left Canada for the United States, but that search ended in disappointment. One almost hopes they won’t find Cherkis, not yet, anyhow, because they -- and readers -- are having too much fun.

That’s one of the three standards for greatness in a work of fiction: How much do you hope this novel won’t come to an end? The other two are: How many thoughts does this novel make you have that you haven’t had before? And: How novel is this novel? Could anybody else have written it?

Reviewers desperate for comparisons will summon up “The Catcher in the Rye” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” but the latter is a movie, and while “The Flying Troutmans” would make a wonderful film, its greatness depends on its clever handling of the written word.

Still, Toews’ college work was in film studies, not “creative writing” (whatever that is). She has a cinematic eye for scenes and a fine director’s ability to make people fully three-dimensional, believable and unforgettable. In fact, she starred in a movie herself, filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’ “Stellet Licht” (“Silent Light”), a title that evokes the low German spoken by Mennonite farmers in this movie (it was a recipient of the jury prize last year at Cannes). Let’s hope that experience won’t turn Toews’ head toward Hollywood. --

With “The Flying Troutmans,” Toews takes her place alongside Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler as the loveliest quintet of Canadian writers.