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Bookgeeks, Saturday 19-jun-2002
The Globe and Mail, Saturday 11-may-2002
The Toronto Star, Sunday 28-apr-2002
Now Toronto, Thursday 25-apr-2002
The Ottawa Sun, Sunday 21-apr-2002
Xtra West, Thursday 18-apr-2002
The Georgia Straight, Thursday 18-apr-2002
Vancouver Sun, Saturday 23-mar-2002
  Eye, Thursday 9-may-2002

Is there a review for Cumberland out there we missed? Please let us know!!!


Bookgeeks
Web, 19-jun-2002
By BOBBI MACDONALD

wow! i know the author! i love that...

my friend Michael V. Smith wrote a book.

(is it wrong to plug a book when you're kind of biased? maybe. but it's not wrong to plug a book when you're biased and it's a really good read.)

and Michael's first novel Cumberland is an engrossing tear-jerking (yes, Michael, tear-jerking!) tale.

Cumberland is a fictional small town in somewheresville eastern ontario. and Cumberland the novel is all about small town folk and how they relate to people they see every day and how even though you can see people every day, people have inner lives and pasts and really knowing someone takes a bit more than hearing gossip or asking them how their day was.

there are officially four main characters in Michael's tale: Bea, Nick, Ernest and Amanda. but actually i would like to submit that there are actually five main characters, the fifth being Aaron, Nick's young son.

I could've read a whole book about Aaron alone, that's how much i loved and believed in this character. that, in itself, is an achievement for a writer; not everybody can relate to children, let alone write them believably. and i think Aaron is actually a pretty pivotal character in the novel. in my mind he kind of acts as a foil to his father, Nick. Nick's importance as a character stems from what the other characters want to solve about themselves or their lives though him: Ernest feels emotions he doesn't understand yet yearns for around Nick, Amanda identifies Nick with a secure adult world she longs to be a part of, and Bea sees him as the link between her loneliness and the people she loves (her teenage roommate, Amanda that she mothers and her troubled boyfriend, Ernest, that, come to think of it, she also mothers. hmmmm) but Aaron's sad little heart sets off the crumbling of the walls around his father and partially* as a result of this the rest of the main characters are jolted into decisions and realizations of their own.

*only partially because, so many other things happen in this novel!

this is a character driven novel about characters you come to know and care about and plus, it's a page turner!

AND it's written by a friend of mine.

did you want more specifics about the plot? honestly, how could i do that without giving away the good parts?

and there are many good parts.

~if you love books and reading: support new writers~

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The Globe and Mail
National, 11-may-2002
By JIM BARTLEY

QUEER SECRETS

Michael V. Smith sets his carefully crafted first novel in a small city named Cumberland, on the St. Lawrence River. The town hugs the North Shore opposite an island Mohawk community, with a bridge to the United States funnelling traffic from Ottawa and Montreal, each city roughly an hour away by car. We are unmistakably in a fictionalized Cornwall, Ont., privy to the private hopes, guilty secrets and deep confusions of a half-dozen intersecting working-class lives.

Bea is a waitress at Malouf's bar. Single, childless and over 40, she's biding her time, still hoping for a love that might last. Earnest is a regular customer at Malouf's, a lonely guy of 50 avoiding empty nights at home with the TV. His wife left him years ago, following an incident he refuses to discuss.

Amanda, fresh out of high school and underemployed, rents a room from Bea. Rejecting the puerile demands of her boyfriend Alphie, she begins flirting with one of Earnest's bar buddies, Nick, whose young son Aaron is bounced between his widowed dad and the in-laws who sit with him several nights a week while Nick drowns his grief at Malouf's.

Bea invites herself over to Earnest's one night and they end up having sex on the couch. An ill-advised relationship begins. It emerges that Earnest has a habit of cruising the riverside park after the bars close, seeking quick sex with men. He's ashamed of these acts, avoiding the implications, barely capable of putting a name to them.

We learn that Earnest is secretly in love; each anonymous encounter by the river brings Nick's name involuntarily to his lips. One morning after a late-night park session he crumples before his image in the bathroom mirror: "It was daylight and he could see for himself what he had become."

Smith writes without a trace of flourish. His prose is simply, meticulously expressive. He negotiates the freedoms of omniscient narrative with fluid skill and psychological acuity, generating a steady (if sometimes wearing) pathos for his characters.

Two major figures -- Earnest and the boy, Aaron -- find themselves in acute (and unrelated) emotional crises arising from their shame over homosexual acts. Smith reserves his final redemptive moment of human connection for these two, man and boy, each with a queer secret, making it impossible not to link this novel with the recent convulsions in Cornwall, lasting years, over a falsely alleged "pedophile ring."

Cumberland offers probing understanding against the deep currents of fear and ignorance that, sadly, still breed witch-hunts.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

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The Toronto Star
Toronto, 28-apr-2002
By PHILIP MARCHAND

DOWN BY THE RIVER

There's redemption to be found even among the supposed losers of faded Cumberland.

The title of Michael V. Smith's first novel, Cumberland, is well chosen. Cumberland, a fictional, blue-collar town in eastern Ontario — it may be a stand-in for Cornwall — is the real focus of the work.

A mill and factory town, Cumberland is beginning to show signs of the same urban decay that has long ravaged industrial cities in upstate New York, just across the river. Tattoo parlours and arcades have moved into main streets where retailers once thrived. Soon after the novel begins, one of the main characters, 52-year-old Ernest Mackey, loses his job when his plant closes down. In what amounts to a brief digression into history and politics, Mackey bitterly explains to a friend how his loss of a job is directly related to NAFTA.

Mackey, whose emotional resources are slight to begin with, responds to his plight by watching more television and increasing an already prodigious intake of Labatt's Blue. In this respect, he seems a typical citizen of Cumberland, where sex and drinking are the principal amusements, intact families are a rarity, and the old church-going ethos of rural Ontario a distant memory. It is fair to say that the cultural level of the novel's milieu is rather low. "For the man who'll never read a book like this," runs Smith's dedication, and certainly you can't imagine somebody like Ernest cracking open a book. Of all the adult characters, the only one who reads is Ernest's girlfriend, Bea. She's a waitress in a beer parlour and favours romances.

As if to emphasize that the real protagonist of his novel is the municipality of Cumberland, Smith constantly varies point of view between five main characters. They include Ernest and Bea, Amanda, a 17-year-old high school dropout and waitress in an Italian restaurant who rents a room from Bea, Nick, a drinking buddy of Ernest's who is also a widower, and Aaron, his 8-year-old son. For all these characters, Cumberland seems a trap more than a community.

"Ernest knew that if he were to move to a different town he'd be lost," the novel states at one point. "He'd be without friends, or anything familiar. There'd be nothing resembling his life ... Most days out of the year he wouldn't admit the city owned him like that, but inside himself, the feeling was fixed tight that he wasn't in control of his life." Another character warns Amanda that if she wants "to get out of this city," she's "got to have college." Her choice is higher education, in other words, or a life like Ernest's. "It's Cumberland," Ernest says to Bea, talking about the plant closing, in much the same tone that a character near the end of the film Chinatown tells Jack Nicholson: "It's Chinatown."

Ernest's thrall to Cumberland is all the more pathetic because he's pretty well at the bottom of the local totem pole. For one thing, he lacks a house and a car, the two major status symbols in Cumberland. At the beginning of the novel he lives alone with his cat in a one-bedroom apartment. Bea is slightly better off — she rents a two-bedroom apartment — but has longed for a house for years. Amanda, too, feels cramped and depressed by boarding with Bea, and wouldn't mind a nice house with a back yard. As for cars, Smith's novel notes the correlation between the social position of its characters and their vehicles with some precision. Ernest, as noted, owns no car at all. His friend Figgy, older than Ernest and in much the same plight, drives a beat-up Datsun. Bea owns a down-market, cheap and cheerful LeCar. Nick, on the other hand, who seems to be reliably employed and in control of his life, possesses a Range Rover with four-wheel drive. Amanda, who has a crush on Nick, enjoys taunting her boyfriend Alphie — poor Alphie drives a Chevy he has pretentiously dubbed "SupeMachine" — with Nick's Range Rover.

All this is not to say that the characters are driven by purely material goals. Like the rest of us, they are desperate for love, which they sometimes confuse with sexual gymnastics. Ernest, partly as a relief from the horrible burden of his Dark Secret, cruises a local park popular with Cumberland gays, and entertains, like Amanda, a certain yen for Nick. ("If only they could hold each other and feel better, Ernest thought ...") His girlfriend Bea realizes Ernest is not wildly in love with her, but regards him as better than nothing and finds his caresses at least a temporary relief for her inner emptiness. Amanda wants "to feel loved and have someone hold her again and tell her things would be all right."

Perhaps the most desperate character is young Aaron, who has lost his mother and now feels that "nobody cared about him anymore." That's a self-pitying and childish sentiment, but of course Aaron is a child. He also has good reason for feeling abandoned — his dad spends every evening since his wife's death at the pub. Aaron's helplessness, unfortunately, is mirrored by the grown-ups around him. None seem like real adults, and it's no wonder they offer very little help to a boy like Aaron.

At the end, the five major characters do manage, in therapeutic fashion, to express their feelings towards each other. Ernest finally unburdens himself of his Dark Secret. Nick sets Amanda straight. What's more, Amanda actually realizes her crush on Nick is misguided. Aaron storms at his father, and amid a flood of tears and embraces, the two bond anew.

This is what passes for a happy ending in a contemporary novel, but it's reminiscent of the "bad movies where everyone cries and hugs each other at the end" that Amanda despises. That reference might lead a reader to suspect some slyness on the author's part, but the novel's finale is too close in spirit to these bad movies to allow for any irony.

Much more convincing are certain touches that suggest the author, a Cornwall native, knows his terrain well. Writing of a campground frequented by the young, and the excitement of a weekend night there, he has Amanda observe that fights always break out. "Two men punching at each other was exciting, but never lasted as long and didn't seem as wicked as two girls going at it. And people would pair up. At the beginning of a night you never knew who would fight whom, or who would screw, or when any of it might happen."

I wish there was more of this in the novel. Smith clearly has a feeling for the world his characters inhabit, but the characters themselves always seem about 20 per cent short of real. The author tries to coax them into life with meticulous detail about the way they use their cigarette lighters or make their coffee — he also reports faithfully on the state of their bladders — but this technique more often than not simply gums up the narrative. Writing about Ernest waking up, for example, he notes, "But this morning, with the sun pouring in around the sides of his blinds, Ernest pulled himself out of bed, pissed in the toilet and splashed his face with water from the tap in the bathroom sink."

Under the circumstances, we can assume the water Ernest splashes his face with will come from the tap in the bathroom sink. And where else, we may ask, is hegoing to urinate but in the toilet?

Star literary critic Philip Marchand appears weekly.

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The Vancouver Sun
Vancouver, 18-apr-2002
By ROBERT J. WIERSEMA

Vancouver writer Michael V. Smith is experiencing the sort of Cinderella story of which every first-time author dreams. The un-agented manuscript for his debut novel, Cumberland, languished in the slush pile at Cormorant Books, one of Canada's foremost small literary houses, for almost two years. Hardly unusual: Most unsolicited manuscripts are returned to sender unread. (The receipt of generic rejection letters is a rite of passage which many writers, unfortunately, never outgrow.)

What sets Cumberland apart from most unsolicited novels is that it got read after all that time, with the publisher describing the experience as "a late-night discovery." The novel is being released this week.

It's easy to see what impressed the readers at Cormorant. Smith, a graduate of the University of B.C.'s creative writing program, has a keen command of small-town life. (The titular community is a fictional treatment of Cornwall, Ont.) He skillfully captures the close emotional ties between those who live in the industrial town, facing the closure of its mills and factories in the wake of NAFTA, and he demonstrates a keen awareness of the rhythms of economic downturn and alcoholism.

Cumberland is propelled not by plot but by the interactions and relationships among its characters over the course of a spring and summer. The focus shifts among them in a confident, clear manner that is never distracting or hard to follow.

The central character is Ernest, a millworker in his 50s who is laid off when the mill is closed. A loner and a drinker, he is haunted by the death of his young son years before. He moves from bar to bar, and town to town, when he finds people getting too close to him.

Early in the novel, he enters into a relationship with Bea, a waitress at his current pub of choice. He also has a secret compulsion that finds him drunkenly wandering the docks and parks, finding intimacy in furtive encounters with other men. He finds himself attracted to Nick, a drinking buddy in his 30s who is raising a young son alone. Bea's roomate, Amanda, a teenage firl on the run from an unpleasant home life, also finds herself attracted to Nick.

Smith is able to dodge the soap-opera possibilities this summary represents, thanks to his considerable skill at character development. Ernest, in particular, is presented as heartbreakingly human. His simultaneous loneliness and fear of intimacy, his confusion over his sexuality and the lingering guilt over the death of his son are treated empathically and without histrionics.

Most of the other characters are developed with the same tender care. Only Nick is less than compelling; he seems bland and pallid, even in comparison to the emotional complexity of his son, Aaron. Perhaps there is a thematic purpose to this treatment - e.g. Nick as the object of both Ernest's and Amanda's desires, rather than as a full-blooded character in his own right. But one wonders throughout what either of them sees in him.

Despite the compelling characterization and Smith's command of scene and structure, the closing section of Cumberland disappoints. After being guided through many pages by realistic characters and their reactions, it's jarring for the reader to find the hand of the creator weighing heavily on the novel in its final pages.

Smith leaves no strands dangling, no plot point unresolved. "Happy endings all around and damn the machinations" seems to have been the order of the day, and readers may end up feeling more frustrated by the obviousness of Smith's constructions than pleased for the characters they've come to know so intimately.

It's unfortunate that Smith spent so much time and skill creating the illusion of life in Cumberland only to sacrifice it to a perceived need for closure and a happy ending. Life just isn't like that.

Victoria writer and bookseller Robert J. Wiersma is a frequent contributor to Mix.

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Xtra West
Vancouver, 18-apr-2002
By BRETT JOSEF GRUBISIC

Q: Where can Michal V Smith be found?
(a) walking (in Stanley Park, in heels and a tennis skirt);
(b) working (downtown, at a university bookstore);
(c) writing (at home, on poetry, fiction or screenplay);
(d) standing (onstage, at the Dufferin, presiding over cultural mayhep);
(e) all of the above.

Anyone having even a brief acquaintance with Michael V Smith -arguably Vancouver's busiest writer/performer/bonvivant- knows the answer to the above question is (e).

In addition to his day job with the regular pay cheque, Smith produces his own zine ("It's called Cruising, and it's a public sex mag. It think of it as a public service. It's an anthropological look at the culture of gay sex"); organizes and hosts a bi-monthly, like no-other, literary experience called Skank at the Dufferin where he dresses as Miss Cookie LaWhore; and regularly appears at author readings and festivals. Oh, and in his spare time he writes (and, more impressive still, publishes) poetry, screenplays and fiction.

His latest accomplishment is a novel, Cumberland.

Smith’s debut novel is a surprise insofar as it does not meet expectations: no drag fabulousness, no hip urban life, no Wildean wit. Instead, it’s a somber meditation on a quartet of unhappy heterosexual lives in a recession-prone Ontario mill town.

Standing within a long-established tradition of realist Canadian literature (aka bleak rural existence), Cumberland examines in exacting detail the interactions of characters all weighted down by personal loss, loneliness and disappointment. At the centre of the novel stands Ernest, a divorced guy who douses his problems with beer and takes occasional anonymous pleasures with other men at night in a riverside park.

The novel takes its name after a street in Smith’s hometown, Cornwall (pop 46,000), a place lately notorious as the epicenter for allegations of a vast pederast conspiracy; Smith left there after high school, moved to Toronto for an undergrad in English and drama studies, and then came west to UBC’s MFA program (creative writing), his graduating project a screenplay called Screwed.

Hewrote and revised Cumberland for years. "I started Cumberland in ‘96, because I wanted to be a novelist, and thought, ‘Getgoing, sweetheart,'" he says. “Good thing, because it took nearly six years to
make it to the stands. I was 25 when I started this. I’m 31 now. I had no idea it would take so long.”

Cumberland works with and against the grain of two literary traditions. Smith explains: “So much Canadiana gets written without ever mentioning the stuff I saw when I lived in a small town. And most of gay fiction is either urban and out, or coming-of-age. I think Cumberland is an unusual book for that reason. It doesn’t talk about a gay lifestyle, being there’s no gay-identified character, and it’s not totally straight either, because there’s gay sex going on. I’m not discovering some new type of person, it’s just that their private lives include material that we haven't discussed before.”

If Cumberland avoids capturing the conventional coming out and the migration to urban community, Smith remarks he’s still intrigued by queer untold tales. “Why would I write a coming out story when there are so many coming out stories already? I’m far more interested in what doesn’t get discussed. That’s part of being a fag for me. I talk about what makes people uncomfortable. I talk about what makes me uncomfortable. I think we’re always coming out. A healthy developing culture is always admitting to its fears and oddities, because that’s how we grow, and learn, and find comfort in each other. ... I think that’s true of a lot of our experience. Shame and fear keep us isolated. Confession and a willingness to be vulnerable create intimacy. Cumberland explores those ideas, and, I hope, embodies them.”

Responding to surprise at his novel’s topic and setting, Smith explains that they reside at his core. “I didn’t set out to write this particular novel,” he explains.” I sat down and started writing and this is what came of that. Mill-working, park-sex-going Ernest came out of me. That said, I am very interested in the politics of a guy like Ernest. I’m interested in the men who have sex with other men but don’t identify as gay, and don’t ever come out, and who, for all appearances and lifestyle and self-identity are straight. Ernest is straight, though he has sex with men.”

He also characterizes the novel as a filtering of experiences from his own past. “People mostly read me as the person I’ve grown into. They don’t see the life I had, that informed me, that made me who I am. I am every character in that book. I lived those lives, I grew up alongside them. I come from that lifestyle; my family is still living it.”

Now pulling together a poetry volume and editing a Skank anthology (with Billeh Nlckerson) Smith has no intention of slowing his sexual fieldwork.

“There are so many things that we’re afraid to talk about as a culture, and say, If so many people are doing it, why not discuss it?

“I hid my sexuality for 17 years and it was painful, stressful, and boring. Now that I’m out, if I’m not going to hide who I’m attracted to, why hide what I want to do? Why do we hide our desires? How are our needs going to be met if we secret them away?”

Michael V Smith’s column, Miss Cookie’s Guide to a Good Time begins in Xtra West next month.

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The Georgia Straight
Vancouver, 18-apr-2002
By BERT ARCHER

Cumberland
By Michael V. Smith. Cormorant Books, 296 pp, $22.95, softcover.

Vancouver writer Michael V. Smith, aka Miss Cookie LaWhore, has finally found a decent editor. After lacklustre performances in the anthologies Quickies (1998) and Carnal Nation (2000), and a banal poem that took third prize in ARC magazine’s 2000 competition, Cumberland, Smith’s first novel, is a truly fine piece of work. Whether this newfound editor is internal or Cormorant’s Marc Coté, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.

The story, set in a fictional Cornwall, Ontario, stand-in called Cumberland, follows Ernest, a millworker whose life is a wreck; Bea, a waitress whose life is a wreck; Nick and his young son Aaron, whose lives are wrecks; and Amanda, a teenaged girl whose life is a wreck. Bea may love Ernest, or she may just need him. Ernest certainly doesn’t love Bea, not the way he loves his ex-wife, anyway, but he needs Bea. Nick is still very much in love with his dead wife, and Aaron loves his father but is just awakening to the fact that his father is having trouble having anything to do with him since his mother died. Amanda, who lives with Bea, figures she loves Nick, or at least likes him more than her stinky teenaged boyfriend, Alphie, who with his blunt-headed amalgam of emotional and sexual neediness is only a notch or two better than Fletcher the bully, a failed Grade 4 student who’s putting the moves on Aaron, who is pretty sure he doesn’t like him but isn’t so sure he doesn’t like it. Ernest also loves Nick and occasionally wanders into the park to get blown while he leans back with his eyes closed thinking of Nick.

With the exception of the final couple of paragraphs, which put far too fine a point on things (I recommend taking a Sharpie and striking out the last three lines before you read them), Cumberland is a wonderfully restrained novel, a quality Smith’s previous publications lacked. Commentary and contextualization are kept to a minimum, allowing scenes like Amanda’s discovery of Aaron and Fletcher in bed together to play out beautifully. Throughout, an ethos of practical radicalism pervades, a homespun version of queer postfeminist principles that, set as they are here so seamlessly and unselfconsciously, appear to make simple, perfect sense.

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The Ottawa Sun
Sunday, 21-apr-02
By DON ERMEN

DARK DEBUT SHOWS PROMISE

CUMBERLAND
By Michael V. Smith, Cormorant Book

It's always interesting to read the flaps of new books after you've read them. There's always a sales pitch, but I like to see just how accurate it is.

Cumberland, the debut novel by Michael V. Smith, is supposed to be a bit like a story penned by a gay David Adams Richards. Richards, who happens to be straight and there's nothing wrong with that, lives in Toronto and is a New Brunswick native known for passionate yet unsentimental novels, two of which have picked up Governor General's Awards. Smith might pick up one of those coveted literary awards some day, but he won't do it with Cumberland.

It's a story revolving around the lives of five characters in the small town of Cumberland before amalgamation. There's Ernest, a 50-something factory worker, who lives alone in a shabby apartment and spends too much time at any local watering hole he can sink into. His latest is Malouf's, where he has struck up a friendship with Bea, a 40-something waitress looking for a man to love. All she wants in return is to be treated decently. Another bar regular is Nick, a recent widower who is raising his 11-year-old son by dumping him at his aunt's each night while Nick heads to the bar. Then there's Amanda, a 17-year-old who leaves home because she can't get along with her mother. So she quits school, rents a room from Bea and waitresses to pay the rent. Finally, there's Nick's 11-year-old son, Aaron. Coping with the loss of his mother, Aaron develops a strange and unwanted friendship with the school bully.

Each story intertwines. Amanda develops a crush on Nick. Nick smartly sets her straight before getting into trouble. Ernest moves in with Bea. He also takes Aaron camping and they bond. Meanwhile, Aaron has a few sex-experimentation sessions with the school bully before he learns to stand up for himself.

HURTFUL SECRETS

It's a depressing novel. These are people you might meet any day of the week, but you wouldn't want to know them too well. The problem is that Smith crafts his characters with so many secrets, so many hurts that it's hard to believe they'll ever know happiness.

The pace is even, with the novel switching between each character's story, each story building to a breaking point. The writing is solid, although the ending is a bit of a letdown. Too many things are resolved too quickly at the same time.

Still, Smith's debut novel shows enough promise to warrant keeping an eye on this writer's future works.

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CUMBERLAND
by Michael V. Smith (Cormorant), 293 pages, $22.95 paper.
Rating: NNNN

Now Toronto
Toronto, Thursday 25-apr-02
By SUSAN G. COLE

SUPER SMITH

Sometimes a book creeps up on you. That's what happens with Cumberland, a novel that starts out as if it's just another day in the bar for middle-aged millworker Ernest but soon enters more explosive areas.Ernest is barely recovered from his divorce of a year ago -- and he's not open about what went wrong. The mill, thanks to free trade, is closing down. And he just can't stop himself from heading down to the park for some late-night gay sex.

Starting an affair with bartender Bea isn't helping, and anyway she's got problems of her own, and a 17-year-old roommate who has a crush on Ernest's 30-something drinking buddy Nick and doesn't seem to care that Nick's wife recently died of cancer and his son isn't over the devastation.

The multi-gifted Smith -- he's also a poet, actor, screenwriter and video maker -- tells the story plainly, and it's extremely effective. His characters' stories of love and loss have so much emotional impact that they don't need embellishment. He's got a way of understanding subtle personal dynamics -- his scenario of a bully sexually harassing a lonely boy gets right at the complex issues of complicity.

And though there are some resolutions to the tensions in the tale, Smith doesn't let us off easy. We still don't know whether Ernest is ever going back down to that park. But then again, some issues have a tendency to linger, don't they?

Smith reads at This Ain't the Rosedale Library on Monday (April 29).

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Eye
Toronto, Thursday 9-may-2002
By ALEX BOZIKOVIC

ENOUGH WITH THE EMPATHY

It's never a good sign when the jacket of a book tells you the whole story. But read this: Cumberland is "a stunning first novel full of empathy -- a small-town story of longing and loss."

If that doesn't set off any alarms for you, read on. The book is set in Cumberland, "an industrial town located halfway between Ottawa and Montreal." And author Michael V. Smith (the jacket helpfully adds) comes from "the border town of Cornwall, Ontario."

Of course, these are cheap shots. You can't really blame an author for starting with what he knows (that's dogma among the creative-writing set), or, certainly, for the platitudes of his publisher. But when you dedicate your first book to "the man who'll never read / a book like this," you're asking for trouble.

And, unfortunately, that opening sets the tone. Cumberland aims to take us reading people inside a few working-class, small-town lives. There is Ernest, the lonely, shaggy mill worker with a heavy heart and some heavier secrets; his love-interest, Bea, the barmaid with a heart of gold; Amanda, her fiery teenage roommate; Nick, the widowed father with a broken heart; and his troubled young son, Aaron.

While these are familiar types, they're mostly well drawn. Little Aaron serves as a nice foil for Smith's men, drawing out fatherly love (and other hidden emotions) from beneath their calloused surfaces. Bea is a compelling figure, too, desperate but strong. Only Amanda really rings false: much too self-aware for a teenage badass, she's just a mouthpiece for the author.

Unfortunately, that fault dominates the book. Smith is clearly a gifted observer. However, he isn't David Adams Richards (who is mentioned, helpfully, on the jacket), or Russell Banks; unlike them, he lacks the novelist's skill of letting his characters speak for themselves.

For instance: "Ernest wasn't frustrated because Nick was still mourning and feeling lost. That was only natural. He was frustrated that they were both feeling lonely and didn't have to be." There is enough nuance here to build a lovely moment -- and there are quite a few lovely moments in Cumberland -- but Smith forgets to show, not tell, and these moments fizzle.

And so, finally, does the book: it's a "first novel full of empathy" -- period. But if Smith learns to keep his own so-lyrical voice in check, his next effort will really be worth a look.

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