cover image Larry's Party

Larry's Party

Carol Shields, Edward R. F. Sheehan. Viking Books, $23.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-670-87392-0

A chronicle of one ordinary man's life as he searches--at first, bumblingly and inarticulately--for happiness and the meaning of existence, this triumphant novel runs in delicious counterpoint to Shields's evocation of Daisy Stone's life in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Stone Diaries. In following her male protagonist over five decades, Shields observes the changing social conventions, gender roles, vernacular idiosyncracies and moral constructs of the times, interpolating these details into the narrative with subtle wit and an unerring eye for telling details. She also delineates the stages of life as the body ages and the future offers only the ""steady decline of limitless possibility,"" while the mind hopes for the solace of some universal truths. Born in 1950 into a blue-collar household in Winnipeg, Larry Weller becomes a floral designer for want of a better career goal. Aware of his lack of education, awkward and sexually timid (his eventual sexual awakening is both raunchy and funny), Larry is dimly conscious of another aspect of life beyond his parochial horizons. Only during his first honeymoon in England, willfully lost inside the maze at Hampton Court, does he get a glimmer that he might be more than ""a man of limited imagination and few choices."" When his fascination with shrubby labyrinths becomes a professional career, Larry moves into a wider world (and from Canada to the U.S. and back again) as a financially successful and internationally recognized maze builder. He also endures emotional traumas: the breakup of two marriages, estrangement from his son, midlife crisis and a catastrophic illness. Meanwhile, he is plagued with inchoate longings to understand the dimly perceived relationship between the mazes he constructs and ""the undertow of something missing"" in his existence. Shields offers snippets of Larry's journey through life in short chapters that often intersect and double back--a turn here, a repetition there. The pathway of her maze becomes clear only at the end, when Larry and his lover give a party to celebrate the coincidence of his two ex-wives arriving in Toronto. Evoked in a brilliant cascade of conversation--in which the central question is ""What's it like being a man in the last days of the 20th century?""--the party provides Larry with epiphanic insight, and the reader with some delightful surprises. The novel glows with Shield's unsentimental optimism and her supple command of a sweetly ironic and graceful prose. Penguin audio; author tour. (Sept.)