[The Shrewsdale Exit is a] neatly compelling reworking of a not unfamiliar theme: how the insider becomes the outsider. Joe Grant is an ordinary, clean-cut middle-American in his thirties. He has a matching wife and a dolly six-year-old daughter. On holiday their car is attacked, on the highway, by three motorcyclists—Hells Angels types. The women are raped and murdered, Joe survives. But, there being no witnesses to the incident, and a minimum of evidence, no case can be brought against the three freaks. Stunned and appalled by the apparent inability of the law and its processes to deal with the gang, Joe takes on the business of revenge himself.
This is just the beginning, and John Buell achieves a writing style that relates strongly to a film. The way in which he sets up the opening scene of violence is creepy and brilliant; not giving away too much, but just enough to scare the reader with anticipation…. [Buell uses a] simple, detached technique. Joe fails in his revenge and finds himself in prison for attempted murder….
With Joe's own imprisonment, the book changes gear a little…. [We] now find a picture of a man moving from the interlocked security of society into the position of outsider. Joe is cool in prison and is soon selected to make up a breakout party, and the novel moves into its final stages of re-birth through an assertion of simple human values: not the highly organised structures of society, but the wholesomeness of a rural, farming community.
Undoubtedly the tension with which the novel opens, slacks off. And it is replaced with a not particularly convincing portrait of Joe's re-emergence; unconvincing because the move from skilled documentary style to sensitive fiction underscores the novel's own move from possibility to the speculative. And the golden rays of hope with which the saga ends seem contrived and, in fact, render suspect the hitherto fairly rigid and consistently critical view of society projected. Not to worry … it was only a story, really…. (p. 102)
Roger Baker, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Roger Baker 1973; reprinted with permission), October, 1973.
[Playground] is a novel about man and nature. The man is pretty close to nobody in particular—which by the logic of some novels is supposed to make us see ourselves in him—and the nature, though a carefully identified segment of primeval Canada, is really any old conveniently featureless wilderness of water and trees.
The human half of this well-worn dialectic is Spence Morrison, who [crash-lands in the wilderness and] … spends most of the novel alone with his descriptive powers.
Well, not quite alone. To guide him there emerges from his subconscious a know-it-all inner voice that sounds like an impeccably starched straightman talking his way toward a pie in the face. Unfortunately, it's supposed to be the whisper of latent resourcefulness. The voice helps him dry his clothes, and later look for food, and in general is as helpful as Robinson Crusoe's Friday and also eats less and doesn't want to beat him at checkers.
He survives nature for three weeks, tells himself he's learned something, and then is rescued just in time, when Playground has stumbled through as many ironic permutations of his two lives as it can conceive….
Playground is a dutiful novel in a fussy way, and gives the impression that it's recording what it has to more than what it wants to…. Writer and reader seem locked in some obligatory dance that neither of them can lead....
(The entire section is 496 words.)
The settings for John Buell's first three novels, The Pyx, Four Days, and The Shrewsdale Exit are vaguely identifiable as Montreal in the first two and northern New York state in the third. But these places are kept unspecified with such deliberate care that readers cannot help noticing the artful dodging. In Buell's grim and violent novels characters move about in spaces so familiar to themselves that a reader who wants a sure fix on the North-American map is unprovided for. He can recognize, of course, the urban, the suburban, the smalltown, and so on, but these are more conditions than places, and he begins to suspect that he is being nudged toward conclusions that have to do with "the human condition," or some other such major abstraction. Above all, he is never allowed to imagine that political boundaries, regional cultures, or local traditions make any difference in what really matters. (p. 77)
It is momentarily surprising, then, to find that his fourth novel, Playground, is peppered with so many specified and exact Canadian locations as to invite the curious to confirm their accuracy with roadmap and atlas. His hero does not merely travel from a city to the great woods as might Joe Grant of The Shrewsdale Exit. Spence Morrison [travels a route very carefully delineated by Buell]…. This selection of detail from the first few pages of the novel … seems to exhibit Buell making up for prior deficiencies, perhaps with hyperbolic irony.
But the change is only apparent. It is Buell's character, Spence Morrison, a prosperous, suburban, middle-aged executive—hooked on efficiency, planning, route markings, brandnames, clock-readings and the like—whose mind demands the assuring specificity of time and place, and though this Morrison, the technology-ridden modern man, operates out of Montreal, he is of a type to be found, one supposes, in any modern metropolis. His story is a story because of the proximity to a wilderness large enough to be lost in, and once that happens all this needless clamor for putting novels in Toronto or Toledo is revealed for the shallow matter it is. The Canadian North could be a fiefdom of Paraguay for all it will help Spence Morrison. We eventually get even the irony that Canadian bills are more valuable as ignitable kindling than as currency to [this] poor fellow whose plane goes down in uninhabited terrain; and for all his maps, charts, and mental doodads, Morrison comes to feel that when he is lost he isn't "even at a real place."… (pp. 77-8)
Buell's main character, Morrison—to all intents and purposes the only one in the novel, whose consciousness is...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)