"Larry's Party" by Carol Shields

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In "Larry's Party," Carol Shields gives us the intimate portrait of Larry Weller, Canadian landscape architect who goes through life as through a maze. In fact, mazes are such a perfect metaphor for this poor sap's perception of life, that our cagey author makes him a lover and professional designer of them.

We have chapters with particular aspects of Larry: "Larry's Love," "Larry's Work," "Larry's Folks," even "Larry's Penis," a chapter on his sexual experiences. As the book progresses, each chapter gives a kind of recap of past events - and while giving a somewhat curious idea to the reader (could these have been published before, as shorter pieces?), the real intent is to adopt a kind of parochial stance toward each of Larry's various facets. This is certainly the approach Larry seems to take. He's not particularly sophisticated or well-read; his emotions often hit him with surprise and he meets them with distrust. Ms. Shields drops hapless Larry into a coma that lasts three weeks; during this time he is cared for by strangers, and his son (from whose mother Larry is divorced) comes and speaks to him fervently, and reads the daily paper to him every day, cover-to-cover. This is the perfect comparison to make with our dim-ish hero: he lurches from one thing to the next in life, not knowing how people care for him.

The eponymous party is the last event of the book. Those attending take up a trendy conversation about what it means to be a man at the end of the millenium. Our author makes it clear: it means going through life relatively cluelessly, acting honorably toward men and women, understanding that as relations with women go, that we're in an experimental age, where roles are all in a state of flux. For which we should all be thankful.

Ms. Shields is very compassionate toward her characters and her readers. Her ear is one of her stronger suits - she knows how people speak and how they express how they feel. This is a sweet piece of work, and its ambition is to capture the essence of a rare species, the white North American male. She succeeds in taking her readers on an interesting emotional journey - that's something she always succeeds at.
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