06 August 2018

Vancouver Shakedown

Dick Diespecker
Toronto: Harlequin, 1953
224 pages

Handsome Stoney Martin and his plain wife Jane leave Toronto on a train bound for Vancouver. In middle-age, they've decided to make the West Coast their home. Toronto just didn't take.

The long journey back affords Stoney a good amount of time to reflect upon the past, his memories spurred on by a chance encounter with his alluring ex-wife, who just happens to be travelling aboard the very same train. He casts his mind back to 1928, when he and Jane were neighbours in a boarding house not far from Burrard Inlet. Stoney was a reporter for the Morning Standard back then, as was fellow boarder Lon Welch. Chunky, hard-working Kurt Pelzer would join them at the boarding house dinner table, though his presence was invariably overshadowed by Susan Niles:
     Susan Niles was blonde.
     Or brunette.
     Or red-headed.
     Depending on the fashion of the time and her mood.
A fashion illustrator, Susan had a beautiful figure and really knew how to dress and make herself up. What Jane, a bookkeeper, lacked in looks she made up in personality and a wholesome philosophy of life. Stoney was in love with her. If he'd been making $30 a week, instead of $25, he would have proposed. As it was, Stoney was happy to take Jane out on Saturday nights... until the Saturday night she'd agreed to a date with chunky Kurt.

Stoney didn't take it well, got drunk, and ended up in sexy Susan's bed. The next morning, Jane caught him sneaking out of the fashion illustrator's room.

The corner of Granville & Hastings, Vancouver, 1928
Claude Bissell, who seems to have been the only person to have reviewed this novel (University of Toronto Quarterly, April 1954), describes Rebound as a "piece of naturalism."

It is.

Stoney's tumble with Susan has some effect on the plot – they marry because she thinks she's pregnant – but the journalist's fate is governed more by history. Stoney's stock rises with the market as the Morning Standard gives him a front page column and several salary increases. When Susan's  loveless marriage proves baby-less, Susan leaves and sets out to take Stoney for all she can get:
"You don't want a divorce? Why not, for God's sake? Do you mean you like living this kind of bloody life?"
     "No, I don't like it any better than you do. And I'm not going to continue it any longer. I'm moving out this afternoon. But I don't want a divorce."
     Stoney was losing his patience and his temper.
     "What the hell are you raving about?" he demanded.
     Susan lit a cigarette and blew out a long plume of blue smoke before she replied. Then, not looking at him, but staring straight in front of her at the blank wall, exactly as she had on another memorable and terrible occasion, she said, "This is what I'm raving about, as you put it. I've taken more from you than I've ever taken from any man before, or ever will again. You've insulted me and browbeaten me and made me cheapen myself because I loved you."
     "I don't believe that," grunted Stoney.
     "I don't care a damn whether you believe it or not. It happens to be true. I did love you, or I wouldn't have done the things I did. and yet you, with your sickening moral hypocrisy, were wiling to accept the physical aspect of our relationship, but nothing more. You pretended you wanted to call the whole thing off, and yet the minute I made a pass at you, you were right back in bed with me. And when you were faced with the prospect of assuming some responsibility for your actions, you called me filthy names.
     "Well, Mr. Martin, I've been saving these things for you. You have a few debts to pay off, and you're going to pay them... with interest."
Then comes Black Tuesday. Stoney's salary is cut, cut, cut, cut, and cut, until the newspaper goes under and he joins the ranks of the unemployed.

Recognizing there's no more to take, Susan takes up with Lon, but still won't give Stoney a divorce. Doesn't matter, really, since he doesn't have money for food, never mind a lawyer. After days without a meal, Stoney manages to find work selling insurance. "The depression is a godsend to us," says his new boss. "There are more burglaries and holdups. So we sell more burglary and holdup insurance. People are more afraid of accidents and sickness, because they are afraid they'll lose pay from being away from their work... or perhaps even lose their jobs."

Stoney scrambles to make unrealistic sales targets, lying to customers and bending the rules, in a desperate attempt to please:
It was always the same. A shameful crawling and pleading, like a beaten dog begging to be allowed back into the good graces of its master. After a while Stoney became, like many of his fellow drudges, inured to the hopelessness of the situation. They simply did not care any more. Tramping through the streets in the fall and winter rains, with cracked and broken shoes, their suits wrinkled and their cuffs frayed, they gave up trying. They worked of half a day, perhaps on for an hour, attempting to sell without enthusiasm, or more important, trying to make collections.
It's Diespecker's depiction of Depression-era Vancouver and the struggles endured by Stoney and others that make Rebound worth reading. The novel loses strength with the coming of the Second World War. Curiously, there is less drama, less conflict, and the atmosphere of despair dissipates.

On reflection, maybe it isn't so curious; Susan Niles is all but absent during the war years, and it is she who brings passion and excitement to this novel. This seems to have been recognized by the unknown hand who wrote the back cover copy. Susan's presence in the novel is played up, and the devastation she brings is exaggerated. Stoney isn't really "a man who had to wrestle with his very soul until the end of time" – and even if he were, he'd have only himself to blame.

Even femme fatales deserve fair treatment.

Object and Access: A surprisingly thick mass market paperback, published once and never again. The copyright page is interesting in that it blacks out Harlequin's claim of ownership. My copy was a gift from Bowdler of Fly-By-Night. I'd been hunting for ages!

Rebound is held by Library and Archives Canada and six of our academic libraries.


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