Does the past truly bind our present? Do past regrets still block us from happiness today? Does the foibles of our parents honestly affect us during our adulthood? Those are deep questions that arise as we follow the lead character of Grant Buday’s novel The Delusionist.
Over the past moth Cyril and Connie had started to notice each other. It began in art class when everyone had to draw each other’s mouth. Cyril did Connie’s whole face. It was a good likeness, an uncanny likeness, right down to the sardonic narrowing of her already narrow eyes, the curl at the corner of her lips, and the nostrils alert to the scent of Cyril’s excitement. Cyril knew he’d hit that one, like a ball square off the bat; the lines were not sketchy but bold, and even had flair. Sometimes it was like that: you lucked out, as if your hand id the work and you were just along for the ride. Not that Cyril admitted that to Connie.
“No putting pins in it,” she said.
“Then you better be nice.”
The story starts out in the summer of 1962 in Vancouver. Cyril Andrachuk is 17 years old and in love. He is the only Canadian-born member of his family, who survived Stalin’s brutal starvation of the Ukraine. He loves art but that desire in him is beyond his family’s comprehension. So Cyril is destined to be ‘a working man instead of a working artist.’
Cyril found himself contemplating suicide. Hanging was too grimly messy, drowning was too wet and cold, pills and booze he’d probably convulse and vomit, he couldn’t bring himself to jump head first out of a tree – certainly not their tree – which left shooting himself, which meant finding a gun.
As a boy he’d often imagined shooting Hitler and Stalin, sniper style, from the window of a bombed out-building. He wait patiently in the rain or snow or dust, through days and nights, though never would his resolve weaken, and then the moment would come when the Fuhrer or Koba raced past to a meeting of generals. He’d take aim. Tick. The rifle bullet pierces the Fuhrer’s skull right behind the ear and the Fuhrer’s head flops forward. Tick. Uncle Joe topples against the shoulder of his aide. Later, in London, Churchill would decorate him and his mother and father would be there watching, and even Paul would have to give Cyril his due.
Not that his mother and father wanted reminders of the war. They’d avoided the prairies where so many Eastern Europeans congregated and come all the way out to Vancouver to escape getting caught up in an enclave that might have kept those wounds open. Paul had told him that, one of the few bits of info about the family prehistory that he’d shared.
Buday does a great job by following Cyril through his life, making this book a fantastic coming-of-age novel. We see Cyril trying to come to grip with not only his past but also struggling to deal with his station at that point in his life. While the plot is a bit complex at times, this book does document an element of the human condition well.
Paul’s death didn’t mean Cyril never saw him again. In fact he began seeing him all too much. One night he appeared squatting like a gargoyle at the end of Cyril’s bed, sucking so fiercely at a cigarette that his eyes glowed like a stoked furnace. Another night he woke from a vision of Paul duct taping barbells to his legs and pushing him off a pier, the bubbling grey water rushing up past his face while the weights dragged him down. Night after night such scenarios recurred until eventually Cyril couldn’t sleep at all. It was as if Paul was waiting inside his head. The family was there too, his mother and his father and Steve and Chuckie watching with barbed wire expressions. Sleeping pills made it worse, functioning like a straitjacket that kept him helplessly at the whim of his tormenters. He paced and he drank and soon his neighbours complained about his heavy tread. The manager warned him, so Cyril started taking marathon walks around the city. More than once he was accosted by muggers, perverts, and madmen lurching from bushes. He resumed pacing indoors and the complaints also resumed. He bought a rug to muffle his footsteps but the complaints continued because by then he was moaning out load and begging them to leave him alone.
Eventually the police arrived. Drunk, distraught, Cyril resisted, had to be restrained, and was hustled out in handcuffs. A cop put his hand on his head and, as if shoving him underwater, plunged him into the back of the squad car. He spent the night in jail, was advised to seek counselling, and was back home by noon where he discovered an eviction notice waiting under his door. It was all down on record, all down in a file, right there alongside the weapons charge for having pointed that pistol at those three guys in his cab.
The Delusionist by Grant Buday is a complex, coming-of-age novel which documents an interesting aspect of the human condition. Therefore it is a brilliant piece of literature.