Leon Rooke Essay - Critical Essays

Rooke, Leon


Leon Rooke 1934–

American-born Canadian short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.

In his fiction, Rooke explores the lives and emotions of ordinary people in their reactions to a world becoming more and more impersonal. He often creates disturbing moods by combining intensely realistic detail with fantasy. The comic overtones present in his work often verge on black humor.

Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed, The Broad Back of the Angel, and The Love Parlour, Rooke's earliest short story collections, are evidence of a traditional style, even though sometimes modified by experimental techniques. In his later collections, Cry Evil and Death Suite, Rooke shows an increasing tendency to utilize the self-reflective, labrinthine techniques of postmodernism.

The release of his tragicomic novel Fat Woman has sparked a wide array of critical response. Some critics, for example, conclude that Rooke has merely expanded a short story into a short novel without a corresponding development of plot or character. Others, however, praise his fine portrayal of the protagonist, saying that it exemplifies Rooke's keen awareness of the psychology of human feelings.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Sally Beauman

[There] is a feeling of frustration about [the stories in "Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed"], as if the writer felt his chosen keyboard were too small, and he was constantly flexing his fingers, eager to modulate from major to minor, throw in a few arpeggios and contrapuntal cross references; in short, as if he wanted to write, not short stories at all, but a novel. Not that it's such a bad fault to have themes which are too big for your medium. Most short-story writers seem to have themes which are too small—nasty, tight, neat little themes which can be cleverly exploited for 4,000 words and then rounded off with a cheap "point" or "twist"—the Somerset Maugham-Saki syndrome, you might call it. At least, Leon Rooke doesn't suffer from that.

There are five short stories in this collection, and one short novel, "Brush Fire." Two of the stories work; three of them suffer from a sort of intellectual and stylistic indigestion. "When the Swimmers on the Beach Have All Gone Home," for instance, starts off well enough: an ex-lifeguard saves a girl who jumps off a bridge; it turns out she jumped, not to get away from him, but to find him; they go back to his apartment; they prevaricate; they end up in each other's arms…. The basic idea is good. Pinter, for instance, has written brilliant plays about relationships poisoned by gratefulness. But here too much else gets dragged in…. [Somehow] the originality of the idea erodes into...

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[Rooke's The Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed shows] that the author knows his craft: the careful pacing, the ability to capture and render a scene, and his fine eye for telling detail are all virtues of the conscious artisan. There are both good and exceptional stories in this collection of six. "The Ice House Gang," "When Swimmers on the Beach Have All Gone Home," and the title story all rank as fine fictional achievements; and "Brush-Fire," the longest story in the volume, is truly exceptional. The remaining two stories, however, seem to lack those virtues which Rooke demonstrates in the other stories. It may be that there is too much behind them that is not rendered. An impressive first collection. (pp. 1577-78)

"Humanities: 'Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed'," in Choice (copyright © 1970 by American Library Association), Vol. 6, No. 11, January, 1970, pp. 1577-78.

Kenneth Baker

The most convincing stories in Leon Rooke's uneven collection ["The Broad Back of the Angel"] are those with a first person narrator. In "Wintering in Victoria" the composure with which the abandoned husband recounts his wife's madness is itself maddening. The angry female narrator of "Dangerous Woman" fills her story with resentful descriptions of the laundromat to the deliberate exclusion of two characters who demand her attention. And because a narrator constructs himself in telling his story, the crippled teller of the title story is the most compelling. His deformity finally becomes an incident in the story, as the narrator shapes his figurative anatomy into a figurative triumph over the zany life he has been passively witnessing….

I get the feeling that Rooke is a more conventional writer than he would like to be. The humor of, say, the wife's list of things she hates about her husband in "No Whistle Slow" is irresistible. But when Rooke gets too arch, as in the "Magician" series, or too elliptical, as in "The Third Floor," his writing drags like an interminable bad joke, despite its quick rhythms. Rooke's writing is full of good details (like a detergent called "Target") that are not always put to good use.

Kenneth Baker, "Fancy Fiction: 'The Broad Back of the Angel'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 1, 1978, p. 6.

John Mills

[Leon Rooke] writes excellent and sometimes poetic prose—which is enough to disqualify him from popular acclaim; he is an experimentalist—which is enough to create suspicion among those who read fiction; and he is not entirely successful at it—which is enough to damn him among the critics. Personally I wish he would write more…. [In The Broad Back of the Angel, three] stories about a magician are experimental, and in my opinion they fail—there is a coy air of self-congratulation about them which brings to mind the fin de siecle affectations of The Yellow Book as does the title story and the frontispiece which illustrates it. Other than the Mexican pieces, "Wintering in Victoria" and "Iron Woman" seem to me to be the most successful. In the first an enraged woman leaves her husband taking their child with her. There seems, in the first few pages, every reason why she should do so—he is cold, hard, and cynical. As the story progresses, however, Rooke switches the reader's sympathies very cleverly. "Iron Woman" ought to interest feminists and be required reading for anyone who is not. It describes a nervous breakdown, and some of the revenge fantasies it generates very strikingly. It is here that Rooke's blending of the representational and the surreal works at its best.

John Mills, "Book Reviews & Review Articles: 'The Broad Back of the Angel'" (copyright by John Mills), in The Fiddlehead, No. 117, Spring, 1978, p. 127.

George Garrett

[Last One Home Sleeps in the Yellow Bed] was a powerful, energetic, and original collection. Rooke has come (or gone) a ways since then, and The Broad Back of the Angel is very different, being more a unified collection of tales … than one of short stories; being also mildly surrealist in matter and in manner, seeming, in style and vocabulary and syntax, to be like a translation, a slightly incoherent and inaccurate translation of a nineteenth-century Middle European novel; or, perhaps, a French surrealist movie of the late thirties, afflicted with poor subtitles. But Rooke is good at it and knows what he is doing well enough. A couple of tales, "The Third Floor" and "Dangerous Women," are kin to the earlier stories. Perhaps the greatest difference is in the attitude toward character, the possibilities of individual being. It may be what has happened to the world in the decade since The Yellow Bed which has shabbily diminished the strength and dimension of character. (p. 468)

George Garrett, "Coming Out of Left Field: The Short Story Today," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1978 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVI, No. 3, Summer, 1978, pp. 461-73.∗

Michael Taylor

I did not find [the stories in The Love Parlour] as disturbing as they were probably intended to be; partly because their avantgardism … keeps them at a remove from immediacy, partly because of a certain slackness and attenuation, almost a languorous quality, in construction, particularly in the last group, "For Love of Madeline," "For Love of Eleanor," and "For Love of Gomez." The trickiest of the stories, however, "Memories of a Cross-Country Man," is a real tour de force whose savage apophthegms, expressed in an amusing and convincing Mexican English, memorably convey the bleak notion of this story, and that of most of the others, that "man is illness personified."… (p. 114)


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Lesley Hogan

[The Love Parlour, published in Canada, and The Broad Back of the Angel, published in the United States,] show masterful control of a variety of techniques. Rooke's concern is with love and the importance of personal relationships in an ever-increasingly impersonal society. He writes of desperate situations in a comic and sympathetic manner.

The "For Love of" series or Mexican trilogy presents a beautifully subtle put-down of the American tourist who can think of the Mexicans as the foreigners in their own country. At the same time, the stories are also a much more complex statement about the nature of the banal world in which we, the "norteamericanos", live. (p. 222)


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Russell M. Brown

Despite Rooke's versatility, there is something about all his fiction that remains identifiable, characteristic, and uniquely personal. Made out of internalized perceptions, his stories are typically ones in which the central character's mind becomes a reflecting pool through which we glimpse the external world. In the course of the story a few stones are dropped in, and as their ripples spread, the images we thought we had recognized reorganize themselves into intriguing new patterns which coalesce, vanish, and reappear, before giving way to something else again. The experience of stories such as these is perhaps closest to that of a particularly vivid dream: one is drawn into a dislocating scene, undergoes a...

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David Quammen

"Fat Woman" is a slim novel with a big heart and a sizable funnybone. Leon Rooke puts us inside the copious body of Ella Mae Hopkins … and we waddle with her through one traumatic day, sharing her secret worries and consolations, her routine travails, her battles of gastronomic will…. We share also her concern over a finger that is being choked gangrenous by her wedding ring and her curiosity as to why Edward, her husband, has begun nailing boards over the window of their bedroom. By novel's end there is resolution concerning the finger and the window—and that's the whole of the story. This admittedly sounds, in synopsis, like somniferous stuff; the small miracle about "Fat Woman" is that it remains entertaining...

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Tom Marshall

[Fat Woman] is an enjoyable and absorbing read, and … has as a central aim an exploration of the dignity and even complexity of the lives of quite ordinary or socially marginal people….

Both Ella Mae, the melancholy fat woman, and her thin and jocular husband Edward are vividly present in all their individual quirkiness and idiosyncrasy. (p. 120)

Fat Woman is a tour de force that could not be sustained at greater length. And though Ella Mae and Edward are utterly convincing as well as likeable, Rooke has (I feel) written around Ella Mae's relationship with her exceedingly bratty sons; he manages this evasive action skilfully, but something is felt to be...

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Jerry Wasserman

Leon Rooke's Cry Evil is mostly unremitting in its sense of life as nasty and brutish. His stories are stocked with characters who, if they aren't mad or paranoid or perverse, are victims of the madness, paranoia, or perversity of others. Rooke tempers all this with hard-edged, self-conscious black humour, and even allows a few tentative affirmations…. With rare exceptions, though, the cry "evil" finds only further echoes in the labyrinth of the self. (p. 106)

[This collection is distinguished by Rooke's] intelligence, versatility, and craftsmanship. The stories in Cry Evil are … [baroque and make great] demands on the reader, echoing Barth and Borges, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Poe....

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Stephen Scobie

[One] feature of Rooke's fiction has been the way the ordinary lives of ordinary people coexist with the most extravagant and bizarre events and are presented in exuberantly experimental forms….

Rooke's form is his content: that the wildness, the exuberance, the grotesqueness, and the sudden tonal shifts from fantasy to the catching and placing of realistic detail in the context of humdrum existence, are all as relevant thematically as they are dazzling technically. One key to such an approach is Rooke's insistence on voice….

Whooping and hollering, cajoling or complaining, Rooke's characters meet the world at an interface of language; their perception is...

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Barbara Wade

To give us such a clear understanding of the lives of the poor and the disaffected, western writer Leon Rooke must have spent a lifetime soaking up their mannerisms, their conversations, and learning to hear their private voices of disappointment and discontent. The result, in Death Suite, is a carefully crafted collection of tactile, poetic prose.

The book opens with "Mama Tuddi Done Over," the longest story in the collection and an introduction both to the monologue style and to Rooke's spirit-world. (p. 75)

The choice of "Mama Tuddi Done Over" as the introductory story to Death Suite is a wise one, for the succeeding stories contain echoes of its eerie tone and its...

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Cathleen Hoskins

[In Fat Woman] Rooke gave us a strong dose of the macabre mixed with rollicking humor. Now, in his excellent collection of stories, Death Suite, he has upped the ante on the macabre. According to Rooke, life is a risky business, walking uncomfortably close to death. This ambivalent chumminess is the crux of his vision.

Not surprisingly, the opening story is set in a funeral home. Mama Tuddi, a tacky television personality, puts in a guest appearance at a young fan's funeral. The event slowly swerves out of control, and Mama Tuddi finds herself caught up in as fine a crew of gospel shouters as any preacher could hope for. Rooke's hotshot black humor is a tour de force in Mama Tuddi...

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Timothy Dow Adams

In light of the number and variety of his previous publications, it is surprising how amateurish the beginning of Rooke's first novel [Fat Woman] is. Many of the minor characters have names as stereotypical as their situations, despite topical references that suggest the book is set in the contemporary South. The fat woman of the title is Ella Mae Hopkins….

At first this love story between an enormously overweight woman and her skinny husband, Edward, is told in a manner that echoes the worst of Southern fiction: slapstick humor …, [cornpone humor, stereotyped poverty, country fried religion], and a stock Big-Daddy whose unbelievable cruelty to Ella Mae as a child results in her poor...

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[Death Suite] shows Rooke in full command of his unique talents. His imagination moves agilely between the surreal and superreal, the kinky supernatural and the logically inexplicable, the banal and the familiar. His style can go from baroque black dialect, to breathless stream of consciousness, to laconic hardboiled detective narrative. The stories focus on people at critical points-of-no-return in their lives. In Rooke's vision, people and society are corrupt, corrupting, and vicious, sometimes merely futile and vain, occasionally sublime. Perhaps the most exciting talent in Canadian fiction since Leonard Cohen.

"Language and Literature: 'Death Suite'," in Choice...

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