Themes / Characters
Although most often about victims — people caged by their limited imaginations, personal problems, and paranoid feelings — Vanderhaeghe's stories are suffused with sympathy or compassion for the vulnerable. The existential gloom is somewhat dispelled by a wry humor in the main characters, whose perceptions of reality, although occasionally wacky, unhinged, or eccentric, are tempered by simple urges for love, security, and acknowledgment.
If pessimism is viewed as a prelude to a new world — why write if there is no hope? — then one would certainly be justified to call Man Descending a pessimistic book. It is filled with stories about fear, guilt, anxiety, the loss of control, mental unhingement, and life in descent. Yet the insights are so humanely wrought, the balance of pain and laughter so skillfully maintained, that there are cracks of light, glimmers of faith and grace amid the gathering gloom.
Family problems are only the start of much larger existential conflicts. In "The Watcher," young Charlie victimized by a bad chest since childhood, suffers greater psychological afflictions on his grandmother's farm when he has to choose between loyalty to her hard pattern of living, and a stranger's aggressive, bullying stratagems to take control of everything. The boy's naivete about his essential role as a voyeur generates much humor, but the real subject is not so much the boy's amazing experiences as a watcher, but of his widening awareness of his own struggle to liberate himself from the "grip of ignorance" and the spheres of weakness.
Families frequently become dangerous cages of emotional turmoil and personality conflicts (as in "Reunion") or of great fears (as in "How The Story Ends"), but the worst cage of all is that sense of life as a suffocating, parasitical pattern ("Cages"). In "Reunion" the young boy at the center of a vicious family quarrel is confused by the internecine upheaval. The teasing toughness of one side of the family and the reciprocations of the other generate an unpleasant tartness, which is quite unusual in Vanderhaeghe's literary universe. This is not a book of unrelieved gloom. In "Cages," where the boy-narrator's father is a miner, the images of descent, mining, and elevator cars are of crucial significance to the sense of a close, choking feeling about life. This is a touching story about a father's slipping from his sense of high courage, and of the narrator's dawning realization of what family love means. Vanderhaeghe graphs the loss of psychological control. In "The Expatriates Party," Joe, the middle-aged widower who goes to England to be reunited with his married son, allows his personal recriminations to get the better of him. Wishing to punish his son, he presents him with a photograph of his mother's embalmed body. This moment is epiphanic in more ways than one, for, in addition to showing Ed's callous irrationality, it reveals an underlying motif. The world for Ed has changed so radically since his wife's painful death from cancer, that he does not recognize the England of the present, his own son beneath the ersatz Anglophilinism, or his own boundary of emotional breakdown. Something bothers him about his son and his friends. Something bothers him about modern England. Something bothers him about expatriates in general. And it is only at the end that he discovers that he himself might be the ultimate expatriate. Had he been lost for thirty years, "an expatriate wandering"? Had those hot clamors of his school teaching days been exile? Was he a harder man than he himself had imagined? Was...
(The entire section is 908 words.)