Kent Thompson

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1184

That Hugh Hood is a serious and accomplished Canadian artist of considerable significance is a fact that ought to be more widely known than it is…. [Some] of the best fiction in Canada is now being written in the short story form, and Hood is one of the masters of it. Furthermore, he is probably its most ambitious practitioner, demanding more of the form than almost any other writer, and he is one of the few who is concerned with the totality of a collection—seeing the collection, I think, as an entity which has its effect in sum and not in bits and pieces.

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It seems to me, in fact, that this feeling for coherence is one of the most admirable aspects of Hood's work. All his work is of a piece, although it shifts focus, takes new directions, explores. It is not obviously avant-garde …, but it is always exploratory, always pushing on, expanding on its previous discoveries, looking more closely here and there, developing, broadening, and always deepening. Indeed, I think there is no predicting the eventual dimensions of his work—and that. I suppose, is part of the definition of an artist.

To give some idea how all this has developed, I suppose I am justified in briefly reviewing Hood's career. One ought begin with his first novel, White Figure, White Ground (1964), a novel of Canadian identity, history, and culture, and one which says a great deal about art. It is also a novel which deals with the relativity of space (conceptual and geographical) and time (conceptual and historical and spatial) and the artist who looks out at the universe from his own specifically individual perspective. In this case the artist is a Montreal-based painter who has married a French-Canadian beauty and returns to Nova Scotia in search of his ancestral identity. The point is made that meaning, in an abstractly relativistic universe, results from the individual creation and imposition of meaning. Thus, as a religion makes the universe coherent, so does an artist, and so does every man…. This sounds more complicated than it is (and I have reached into other parts of Hood's work to make my generalizations) because the weight of Hood's concern falls on the individual. His art deals with the individuals who live in the context just described. (pp. 116-17)

But the context is important, and the individual who ignores it does so at his peril. One has to consider one's time, place, and history in one's creation, and one has to decide if one's creation of an identity is valid and worthwhile. For example, in an early Hood story, "O Happy Melodist!", the heroine tries to create herself in the world of fashion, and the result is that she becomes so "in" that she's "out." That is, she disappears as an individual in becoming a representative of something fashionable. This is just one of the themes which Hood pursued in his second collection of stories, Around the Mountain, and again in his second novel, The Camera Always Lies. (p. 117)

In The Fruit Man, The Meat Man & The Manager, Hood continues his explorations within his contexts, but he seems to concentrate on a new aspect: that of morality. Hood has always been a writer of moral concerns, interested in moral difficulties and ambiguities, but in this collection he seems to me to center his focus upon the idea of the good man. (pp. 117-18)

[According to Hood, each man] must try to be good. If he has some measure of success, he may very well change other individuals for the better. He may even take on the dimensions of a religious metaphor, emulate the great teachers, become, nearly, a saint.

It is as difficult as that. And to my mind, this is the chief thrust of Hood's latest work. He is concerned with the individual human condition in the face of the universal human condition, and he asks the hard questions: what is a good man, and how does a good man become a saint?

Usually, of course, such an achievement comes within our own religious traditions. For example, in "The Holy Man," Hood examines the growth of a Jewish boy from poet to playwright to holy man…. The holy man in the story becomes a teller of simple parables, making sense and goodness out of a difficult world. As the narrator says: "He made the cruel sometimes kind. People changed their lives at his entreaty. This is miraculous." The emphasis, therefore, is on the effect of the good man upon the human condition as we know it in the individual. Whenever a change for the better is brought about—however trivial it might seem to be—then it is possible that the man who created that change is a saint. In the Roman Catholic tradition Hood sees this in the work of the famous Montreal figure, Brother André, of "Brother André, Père Lamarche and My Grandmother Eugenie Blagdon."… Brother André is famous because of his devotion to God and the Oratory in Montreal, but he approaches saintliness because he can alter an individual for the better and alleviate suffering, the human condition.

But Hood is most of all a very coherent writer, and if some of his short stories are related to his general concerns, others are related to one another as well. (pp. 118-19)

Hood's stories are easy to read but sometimes difficult to understand. On the one hand this may well be because most of us are simply insufficiently skilled as readers. Hood—like a number of other short story writers—has developed in the little magazines, where one has a selected audience—an audience which is skilled, in fact, in dealing with the flickering implications of the contemporary short story…. But sometimes you have to wait a while for all the possible meanings of the story to filter through your consciousness.

And this may be due to a technique which Hood likes to use: allegory. I confess that I have always disliked allegory, but Hood is beginning to win me over. Or perhaps I have simply misunderstood the use of allegory, which I have always summed up briefly as the saying of one thing and meaning another. That's true, I think, but not true enough. For Hood, an allegory means what it says but it also means something more and sometimes something more again. The distinction is important.

Hood's characters are never simply representative. One might contrast this with Robertson Davies' characters in Fifth Business. Only the narrator of Davies' novel seems to me to be a real person. (pp. 122-23)

But Hood's characters are first of all what they seem to be and they maintain that identity even while gathering others. In the title story of this collection, for example, the Fruit Man, the Meat Man, and the Manager are just that. But also something more. (p. 123)

Kent Thompson, in a review of "The Fruit Man, the Meat Man & the Manager" (copyright by Kent Thompson; reprinted by permission of the author), in The Fiddlehead, No. 92, Winter, 1972, pp. 116-23.

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