Reviewed in this essay: Maintenance by Rob Benvie. Coach House Books, 2011.
Rob Benvie, author of The Safety of War, offers in his second novel, Maintenance, an important investigation into the relationship between place and despair. Benvie’s characters bleakly exist in suburbia — Mississauga — at the turn of the millennium and while they want for nothing material, they crave a life that is more than mere “upkeep.”
Benvie portrays several characters who are either troubled with millennial anxiety or the dullness of their lives. Parker, a DynaFlex salesman, becomes fascinated with the “power of endings” and the “revolt” that Adam, from Africa, having witnessed atrocities, is determined to carry out. Parker’s wife, Trixie, suffering from mysterious blackouts, longs for her tumultuous past. Owen, their son, is addicted to cough medicine yet determined to “never weaken” in the face of the “battles” he imagines are ahead. Parker’s brother, Heath, wants “change or what’s the point.”
Throughout, Parker and Trixie disconnect from each other and from Owen, who retreats into his own world. The family lives together yet in an isolation from each other so complete, it’s wrenching. One morning, Owen — teeth pink — stumbles home from a party to see that a storm has partially destroyed his house yet simply enters and plays video games, as if the condition of his sleeping parents is not his concern. Once, Trixie drinks with neighbourhood kids to revive a past self, “escape.” Parker follows Owen’s psychiatrist’s directive to remain “gentle but vigilant” with his son — rather than following his own fatherly instincts.
With impressive concreteness, Benvie evokes the emotional flatness of suburbia. He captures the “dark trio of boys in hooded sweatshirts,” the “tired hush,” of the atmosphere, the “chalet-style bungalows,” the parking lots “empty of humans,” and the “noiseless house.” With his meticulous attention to the sterility of the characters’ world, Benvie could be saying that such an environment is inimical to intimacy and connection, and that this conflict, combined with worry over the coming millennium, pushes characters toward terrible outcomes.
Owen’s and Parker’s journeys held me the most. Owen stands on the verge of collapse throughout. Parker’s disorientation is almost equal to his son’s and Trixie’s confusion between past and present compels. Heath and Adam are necessary to the theme and plot, but their journeys felt less engaging — perhaps they had not as much to lose as the family of three.
In vivid, flawless prose, Benvie shows us the consequences of desolate places and desolate lives.