Synopses & Reviews
One morning in Don Mills, Phil and his brother Jay agree to let their friend Norman Kitchen tag along on an adventure down into a ravine — and what happens there at the hands of two pitiless
teenagers changes all their lives forever. Years later the horrifying details are still unclear, smothered in layers of deliberate forgetting. Phil doesnt even remember the names: Ted and Terry? Tom and Tony? Its only when he descends into a crisis of his own that he comes to realize that perhaps, as he drunkenly tells a crisis line counsellor, “I went down into a ravine, and never really came back out.”
The Ravine is Phils book — we read it as he types it, in the basement apartment hes called home since his wife kicked him out for having an affair with a make-up girl. As he writes, and then corrects what hes written, we hear how he went from promising young playwright to successful, self-hating TV producer. We listen in on his disastrous late-night phone calls, and watch his brother (once a brilliant classical pianist) weep to himself as he plays Ravel and Waltzing Matilda in a desolate bar. The Ravine tells us all about the influence of The Twilight Zone on Phils work and his life — how it helped him meet his wife Veronica and then lose her, and how it led to the bizarre death of his friend, TV star Edward Milligan. Sometimes, when Phils drunk, a friend will look at what hes written so far and call him on it — like when Jay tells Phil that hes remembered it all wrong: that he was just as good as Phil at tying knots back when they were in the cubs.
Phils “ravine” is his attempt to make sense of things, to try to understand how everything went so wrong just as it seemed to be going so right. But The Ravine is also a Paul Quarrington novel, meaning that its hilarious and ingenious, quietly working its magic until the reader is at once heartbroken and hopeful. A darkly funny story about loss and redemption, The Ravine is also about how stories are made — how they can pull us out of disasters that seem too much for anyone to bear — and about how, sometimes, what we need to forgive ourselves for is not what we think it is at all.
Every childhood contains at least one “ravine”–one episode where the normal fabric of everyday life rips and the monsters come roaring out. But only Giller-nominated novelist Paul Quarrington could make that moment both profound and profoundly funny.
Phil McQuigge’s marriage is over, he has lost his job as the producer of a wildly successful TV series, and has also lost the star of that series, who died on the set under mysterious circumstances that seem to be all Phil’s fault.
So Phil, who self-medicates for guilt and despair with liberal quantities of alcohol and what remains of his wit, sets out on a redemptive quest. He has narrowed down the source of his mid-life freefall to the lingering consequences of an ugly incident that happened in a suburban ravine when he was a boy, on an afternoon of adventure with his little brother, Jay, and their hapless tagalong, Norman Kitchen. Phil decides that if he can only find and make amends to Norman Kitchen then just maybe the planets will once again align benevolently with his fate.
Paul Quarrington describes his tenth novel as what would happen if he had written Mystic River. He has a point: in his hands, comedy rides on top of a tragic undertow as the novel follows the surprising echoes of boyhood trauma in the lives of all three men. The extra surprise twist at the end? What Phil ends up having to atone for is not the sin he thinks he has committed.
About the Author
The author of ten novels, Paul Quarrington is also a musician (most recently in the band Porkbelly Futures), an award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, and an acclaimed non-fiction writer.
Paul Quarringtons last novel, Galveston, was nominated for the Giller Prize; King Leary won the CBCs 2008 Canada Reads competition and the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal; and Whale Music was awarded the Governor Generals Literary Award for Fiction. Recently, Porkbelly Futures self-titled second CD has been released to widespread acclaim, and Paul Quarringtons short film adaptation of The Ravine, entitled Pavane, was featured in the Moving Stories Short Film Festival. Paul Quarringtons non-fiction writing includes books on some of his favourite pastimes, such as fishing, hockey ,and music. His next book, The Song, is due out from Greystone Books in 2009. A regular contributor of book reviews, travel columns, and journalism to Canadas national newspapers and magazines, he also teaches writing at Humber College and the University of Toronto.
An (extremely) amateur magician and would-be mariner, Paul Quarrington lives in Toronto.
Reading Group Guide
1. “Thats probably the thing Im best at in my life, tying knots,” Phil says. Is it a fair description of his life and the book we're reading? How?
2. How does TV influence Phils life and The Ravine as a whole?
3. Several times Phil corrects himself, and doubts his memories of events hes told us about or has these accounts refuted by other characters (whose words he transcribes). Is Phil a reliable narrator? What effect does his reliability as a narrator have on your sense of him and his life?
4. What do you regard as the funniest moment in this otherwise dark book?
5. Why does Phil have an affair with Bellamy?
6. Phils daughters are named Ellis and Currer; the man who directs his first play is called George Gordon; he is friends with a (William) Beckett. Whats the significance of names in The Ravine?
7. What does The Ravine tell us about “high” v. “popular” culture? (Among other things, you might consider the arguments Jay and Phil have about their careers, the importance of The Twilight Zone and Barchester Towers to the plot of The Ravine, and the role played by John Hooper.)
8. “I should let you know, John — and this might affect your next book — there is a reclamation project in the works.” In what ways is The Ravine a reclamation project?
9. In what ways does The Ravine define personal and/or professional success?
10. What different responses to evil does The Ravine explore?
11. The Ravine features a large cast of major characters — Phil, Jay — and more minor characters, including Phils rival, the novelist John Hooper; barmaid and doctoral student Amy; Phils sometime-girlfriend, Bellamy; Veronicas new boyfriend, Kerwen. . . . Who is your favourite minor character in the book, and why?
12. “Just because were brothers doesnt mean were the same or even similar.” Describe the relationship between Phil and Jay McQuigge. Why does Jay help Phil the way he does?
13. Phil writes about what hes writing as hes writing it. Starting out he tells us his strengths and weaknesses as a novelist; when he writes a scene in screenplay form, he says that its because “it affords distance.” Later on, a character in Hoopers novel Baxter turns out to be based on Phil (and to further confuse things, his name is Paul). What do you make of the uses of metafiction — the ways The Ravine is aware of itself and about itself — in this novel?
14. How is The Ravine similar to and different from Paul Quarringtons other books?
15. What is the “eleventh commandment” in The Ravine, and why does it matter?
16. Do you like Phil McQuigge? Or, are you at least willing to see what he makes of himself? How does Paul Quarrington keep alive the readers sympathy for his drunk, self-obsessed, self-destructive narrator?
17. Which Twilight Zone episode best describes Phils life?
18. Paul Quarrington described The Ravine as what would happen if he wrote Mystic River, the Dennis Lehane novel that was made into a film by Clint Eastwood. What does he mean?
19. Will you recommend The Ravine to your friends? Why, or why not?
20. “Well, cant you just make something up?” How do you feel about the ending of The Ravine?
What first inspired you to write this novel?
To be perfectly candid, I was inspired by a therapist who asked, “Have you ever written about your mother?” “Nope,” I replied, so I went home and started writing about a memory I had, specifically when my family got our first television set. I was fairly old when this happened, perhaps eight or nine, and it occurred to me as I was writing that it really had a profound effect on me, the arrival of that hulking piece of furniture with its black-and-white dreams. Other things occurred to me as I worked on that first piece — how my memory was faulty, how much I loved The Twilight Zone, my relationship with my younger brother — and by the time I was finished, I kind of had the idea for the whole novel. This section was, for many drafts, Chapter One, but I believe it got down-shifted to Chapter Four or so, and it marks my mother’s only appearance in these (or any other) pages.
How would you describe the connections between Paul Quarrington and Phil McQuigge?
Phil and I share certain characteristics and tendencies. Let’s face it, we’re the same guy. None of the specifics are true — the incident in the ravine, the marital demise, etcetera — but we have lived through, fundamentally, the same experiences.
How did writing The Ravine, your tenth novel, present different challenges from writing your other books (or in what ways was it similar)? What was the biggest difficulty, and how did you get through it?
Because The Ravine was not completely fictional (as was, say, Galveston), the main problem the writing presented was that it demanded a kind of emotional nakedness. I don’t think of myself as a very artistically courageous writer (and I greatly admire those that are) but I mustered what little nerve I could to write the book. The similarity with my other work is . . . writing it was a blast! I always think, “If I don’t have any fun as I’m writing this thing, no one’s going to have any fun reading it.” And even though I can be quite serious-minded, I try to be as entertaining as possible!
As well as being an award-winning novelist and screenwriter, you’re an acclaimed filmmaker and musician, among other things. How do music and film and your other work inform your writing, especially in the case of The Ravine?
Well, Phil fears that he too easily abandoned the novel (this is his first attempt) and the theatre for the world of television, and I sometimes feel that I have applied too much energy to non-novel — related projects. As for the music, Phil’s brother, Jay, plays piano in a bar, and I intended his music to work as a kind of soundtrack for the book. I have made a short film, Pavane, with a producer named Judith Keenan who has a company called BookShorts. Even though the film is only six minutes long, I think it manages to draw all of these things — the characters, music, film, etcetera — together. I’m really proud of it.
What’s next for Paul Quarrington?
I’m writing a book about my involvement in music. I used to say my “career” in music, but until I manage to actually get a career, I’m going with “involvement.” It is called The Song and I talk about a lot of songs, and songwriters, that I feel are influential. A kind of companion piece is a novel, The Songwriter. It’s an odd kind of murder mystery, and in many ways it’s sort of a country & western Whale Music.