Sibum in Nighttown

Norm Sibum
The Traymore Rooms
(Biblioasis, 2013)

The Traymore Rooms, a novel at once hugely ambitious and never above an off-color crack, aspires to be the late triumph of a long career. It seeks to trump Norm Sibum’s four modest decades of poetry. The author’s closest brush with fame came in 2002, when Girls and Handsome Dogs captured a Canadian award. Now however, Sibum, an American expat in Montreal, has risked a substantial artistic departure. Traymore runs a good 10 times longer than any of his previous books, and it’s going after a “Melvillian” game: the decline and fall of the American Empire, by means of highbrow bedroom farce. The combo harkens back to big-novel romps of the author’s youth, in particular John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor (1960), which put Colonial America through dizzying bounces. The narrative reach alone is honorable—though at times it exceeds Sibum’s grasp.

The dominant taste of Traymore is the bittersweet of the narrator, Randall Q. Calhoun. An “aging boulevardier,” with “leonine…hair in a state of arrested white,” Calhoun has no job to speak of, raising a concern I’ll get to, and no assets other than a one-bedroom in a nondescript Montreal building. That’s the Traymore, the “rooms” he shares with the other major players, and his shaggy-dog tales (not to say bitch-in-heat tales) never get beyond those apartments and the bar downstairs. Even Calhoun’s Rome trip shrinks to what the “Traymoreans” have to say about it. Throughout, the text is either gab or meditation. Much of it comes across with smarts and verve, however, and it’s no surprise to learn that our narrator’s a poet. His soulful piquancy seeps even into the excerpts from the diary of his primary love interest, a much younger woman—another concern I’ll get to.

The romance is central, but it never gets out from under looming historical inevitability. Calhoun and his girl share a fondness for Latin classics, and from there he always moves to fatal American flaws:

Virgil might have sung arms and the man, and yet… Rome filled in the wild and barbarian spaces at the expense of the indigenous tribes, and then ran a protection racket. How bitter were the tears the last Etruscan wept? As for the Colonies, the fledgling U.S. of A., well, the likes of Andrew Jackson, arch-democrat, were a kind of paint remover and finish all in one. Creative destruction.

The passage is typical, its fractals of metaphor all arriving at gloom, and later Calhoun states flatly that he “refuses to believe in the American Utopia.” That declaration does have an imaginative setting, a trial scene in the narrator’s head—Traymore in Nighttown. The poetic fertility rarely lets up, as Sibum embeds an impressive variety of links to “the twinned facts of Imperial Rome and contemporary America.” Also the argument is from the heart, given the author’s experience; in an interview he reveals that the Vietnam War triggered his flight to Canada. Nevertheless a reader would appreciate it if, once in 100 pages or so, the prophet would point out some different writing on the wall.

Worse, this one’s not living on locusts and honey. Most evenings, and many a lunch as well, Calhoun enjoys table service down in the bar. The place starts out as the Blue Danube, then gets renamed Le Grec, and yes, that change drags a waltz from the 1890s, the dawn of the American Empire, back to the Classical era. But thematic resonance can’t mask thumping irony. Here’s a self-confessed “layabout,” raising a stink about being a victim of history. It’s telling that Traymore waits till the closing quarter to reveal that the narrator’s on a trust fund. Even a first-time novelist can understand the risks of an unsympathetic protagonist, especially when women keep plopping down on his couch.

Happily, this first-timer is also familiar with that weary trope, bedhopping as a sign of the apocalypse. Calhoun proves to have scruples, and the novel’s sexual tension often derives from his polite refusal of favors. The biplay can be delicious: “The Good Ship Lollipop,” declares one jilted drop-in, “doesn’t sail every day.” The women themselves, that is, act with smarts and spine, though one wreaks destruction in a manner intended to recall Bush II—provided you can picture W wearing nothing but a pink boa and waving a revolver. Verge-of-porn episodes like that, too, are presented indirectly, after the fact, and Sibum steers clear of cliché in describing bodies and faces. The only true knockout plays a bit part, and Calhoun notes too that his dream-lover, the waitress Moonface, is far from that woman’s equal.

Yet Moonface isn’t just young enough to be the man’s granddaughter, she’s also working two jobs. She’s a grad student as well as Calhoun’s serving-maiden. And how can a narrative haunted by imperial abuses of power indulge its protagonist as if he were Tiberius on Capri? Even when Calhoun castigates himself, during a relative dud of a conversation, it’s for holding back. Hey, man, holding back is the move. It’s the hippie move, sitting around getting stoned till the lady comes to believe she’s calling the shots. In Calhoun’s case, the fourth or fifth time a woman offers herself and he demurs, you wince; when the lone knockout comes calling, you choke.

The man would’ve done better to hook up with Eleanor, a woman about 40, frisky, worldly, and full of feeling. Their conversations go a long way to redeeming Calhoun’s white-haired adolescence. Otherwise, too, Sibum effectively eschews the “cheap genre” approach to worldwide collapse, “some tale of the inner sanctum,” all about the powerful and their trophies. “Pay me millions to fake it,” claims Calhoun, “and I could not do it,” and so he confines his drama to the no-accounts. As for the sheer weight of it all, isn’t that part of the Homeric task? Right down to the reiterations (Moonface is “long-bellied,” Montreal a “faded Jezebel”)? Or think of the title, its French-English doubling, trés-more. Exactly.

Contributor

John Domini

JOHN DOMINI's latest novel is A Tomb on the Periphery. A selection of essays and reviews, The Sea-God's Herb, will appear soon on Dzanc Books. See www.johndomini.com.

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