Gail Anderson-Dargatz, the acclaimed and bestselling author of The Cure for Death by Lightning and A Recipe for Bees, brings readers once again into the heart of rural Canada with A Rhinestone Button. As funny as it is tender, it is a novel full of true-to-life characters, natural wonder, and sweet surprises.
Despite growing up in the small farming town of Godsfinger, Alberta, Job Sunstrum was always a bit of an outsider. A thin young man with blond, curly hair, he loved baking and cooking, and certainly did not fit in with the rough-and-tumble farmboys around town. There wasn’t much understanding to be had at home on the family farm, either, where his domineering father and bully of a brother ran roughshod over his life. But even when Job takes over the farm after his father’s death and his brother’s departure to train as a pastor, his community remains his animals, and perhaps the church women with whom he shares his baking on Sundays. Lonely beyond belief, overwhelmed by religious guilt, and taut with fear at the thought of what life might have in store for him, Job can only turn to God and hope that someday, things will turn around: he will find a nice Christian woman to marry, and settle down to the farming life, as his father had before him. Only his synesthesia — his ability to see sounds as colours, and feel vibrations as solid forms — provides him with passing moments of solace, but it also reaffirms for him that he experiences the world in a way the other people of Godsfinger could not possibly understand. And that there is some sort of knowledge that everyone else shares, a certainty, that must have skipped him by.
Then one year, Job’s “tightly coiled” life begins to fall apart, and even the small sureties that got him through the days are torn away from him. His brother Jacob and his family return to live on the farm, pushing Job out of his home and into the hired hand’s cabin. His neighbour Will, the closest thing he has to a friend, is exposed to the town as gay and Job is consumed with guilt by association. The colours even disappear from sounds. Faced with change on every level and not knowing how to live outside the world he was brought up in, Job allows himself to be caught up in the Pentecostal drive of a preacher named Jack Divine, in hopes that clinging to his beliefs, proving his faith, and doing what others expect of him will make everything all right. But when his new-found religious fervour only accelerates his despair and his world continues to crumble, Job is surprised to find that true faith can be found in earthly experiences, and come from the most unlikely of sources. That a world without the familiar colours and shapes of sound is not half-heard, as he feared, but freed to break out in song.
Like Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s previous novels, A Rhinestone Button is a loving and magical portrait of small-town life that makes us question what we believe is real, and true. Just as sounds leap to Job’s eyes in vivid explosions of colour, the words on these pages are landmines of image and meaning, bringing the people and the landscape of Godsfinger to life in our own minds. We can hear the whistle of ducks’ wings as they fly overhead, and smell the warm grassy breath of curious cows as they cluster around our chairs. Characters break through the molds of what’s expected by their neighbours, and by us, and populate the towns of our imaginings. There’s Dithy Spitzer, the town oddball who patrols the streets with her water pistol and lectures people on safety, yet has an oracle’s ability to speak the truth; Darren, a messed-up, adultering husband haunted by the ghost of his father, whose past makes one wonder how he survived at all; Ed, Will’s ex-lover, who helps Job understand that being a good man is about more than who you have sex with; and of course Liv, a hippie waitress who doesn’t believe in God, but does believe, and ultimately leads Job to a new level of faith. And Gail Anderson-Dargatz brings her readers right along with him, on a synesthetic journey that reaffirms our faith in great stories, and great art.
About the author
Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose fictional style has been coined as "Pacific Northwest Gothic" by the Boston Globe, has been published worldwide in English and in many other languages. A Recipe for Bees and The Cure For Death By Lightning were international bestsellers, and were both finalists for the prestigious Giller Prize in Canada. The Cure For Death By Lightning won the UK’s Betty Trask Prize among other awards. A Rhinestone Button was a national bestseller in Canada and her first book, The Miss Hereford Stories, was short-listed for the Leacock Award for humour. Her most recent novel, The Spawning Grounds, released in fall 2016, was again a bestseller. After nearly a decade of teaching within the Optional-Residency MFA program in creative writing at the University of British Columbia, Gail now mentors writers around the world through her own on-line forums. She lives in the Shuswap, the landscape found in so much of her writing.
Excerpt: A Rhinestone Button (by (author) Gail Anderson-Dargatz)
Once upon a time, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job. He was a man of perfect integrity, who feared God and avoided evil. -- Book of Job
Job Sunstrum felt sound, and saw it. He held the hum of a vacuum cleaner in his hands: it was an invisible egg with the smooth, cool feel of glass. A sensation so real he followed its curve with his finger. He left the vacuum sitting in the kitchen, running, occasionally for hours at a time. Listened to the vacuum’s whirr with his eyes closed and smoothed the glass egg in his hands. He rose from these sessions calmed, refreshed, clear-headed. Untroubled, for a time, by the fear and guilt that dogged him.
Others might have called this pastime meditation, but not Job, as contemplation of nearly any kind other than prayer was discouraged in the circles he travelled. “It’s not good to leave the mind empty,” said Pastor Ludwig Henschell from his pulpit at Godsfinger Baptist. “An unoccupied mind is the playing field of the devil.”
The voices of the congregation as they sang a hymn produced, for Job, concentric rings of colour, like the rippling circles falling rain created on the surface of a slough. His friend Will’s voice was the deep blue-green of a spruce tree. Stinky Steinke’s was the blue-black of a crow’s wing. The sopranos’ circles were small and brilliant, in dazzling whites, yellows, peaches, pinks. Penny Blust’s was the colour of pink lemonade. The altos tended to the purples, like Barbara Stubblefield’s, the blue-violet of flowering borage. Circles of colour that rippled outward, blended with one another. A vision Job experienced out there, projected a half foot in front of him, as if onto a transparent screen through which he saw the world around him.
Job sometimes stopped singing, lost his boundaries of self to the pool of colours, in the same way that he expanded, then dissipated, into the expanse of prairie and arching sky as he drove the paved roads. He startled awake to his shrunken self when the hymn came to an end, just as he did while driving when he met an oversized stop sign or rumble strips, a series of bumps on the asphalt that warned mesmerized drivers of an upcoming intersection. But when he was submerged in the congregation’s singing he also felt a certainty, a thrill of recognition as if he had unexpectedly seen a beloved on a strange street in an unfamiliar city. The passion of aha! Of eureka! Though what it was he knew, what it was he had discovered, he couldn’t say. It was a feeling that lasted for just a moment after the song was over. A knowing. At these times he knew God was real with the same instinctive confidence with which he knew how to breathe.
It was a phenomenon he kept to himself. He had tried telling his best friend, Will Stubblefield, when they were still children. Job and Will waited for the school bus together at the Sunstrum mailbox. Sang with each other in the junior church choir. Competed against one another with their 4-H calves at Whoop ’er Up Days. Visited each other’s homes after school, slept in each other’s bedrooms, and once when they were twelve they spent the night out in the field together, though Job’s mother had made Jacob, Job’s older brother, join them to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. Plagued by mosquitoes and smelling of insect spray, they snuggled in their sleeping bags and, with Jacob snoring beside them, waited for a show of northern lights.
Just before midnight the adventure took a turn. “I’m cold,” whispered Job. “Mosquitoes driving me crazy.” He wondered at his brother’s blissful sleep, how the mosquitoes’ whine and bites didn’t wake him. At fourteen, Jacob had grown stinky and large with burgeoning manhood. Job watched his step with his brother, anticipating his moods as he did his father’s. Just as his father would inflict the strap, Jacob would trip him up or wrestle him to the ground, twisting his arm behind his back.
“Let’s zip our sleeping bags together,” said Will.
Job listened a moment to hear that his brother was still asleep. “I don’t know.”
“It’ll be warmer.”
Job, who was used to doing as he was told, or merely asked, zipped his sleeping bag to Will’s as quietly as he could for fear of waking Jacob, who, he sensed, would put an end to this sleeping-bag business. Jacob rolled over, snorted. The boys eased their way into their bed and Job pulled the edge of the sleeping bag over his face, to warm his nose, to ward off the insistent mosquitoes.
“You ever kissed a girl?” said Will.
Job weighed his answer briefly, and decided to answer truthfully. “No.”
“Me neither. Let’s practise. With our pillows.”
Job felt a queasy warning in his stomach that he felt each time he was about to step into unknown territory. The whole of Job’s sexual education, as provided by his father, had been delivered in two sentences: “Keep that thing in your pants,” and, after Abe had shot a feral tomcat dead just as it was mounting a barn cat, “That’s what you’ll get if I ever catch you screwing around.” He knew his father suspected that he had begun to abuse himself. One cold night, Job had taken his mother’s blow-dryer from the bathroom cabinet and used it to warm himself under the blankets. The warmth was a relief, but it was the hum of the blow-dryer he enjoyed most. It generated a smooth cylinder in his hand, one he could run his hand up and down. It had the feel of glass, as if he were holding his mother’s clear glass rolling pin, one of the few wedding presents that had survived the years. He closed his eyes and stroked the cylinder, visible only to him, enjoying its smoothness, thrilling at the knowing that came along with it. He didn’t hear his father’s knock and Abe walked in on him, blow-drying his thighs under the covers, stroking his invisible cylinder, his knees making a tent of the blankets.
“Stop that!” said Abe.
Job pulled the blow-dryer out from under the covers, turned it off. “What?”
Abe waved a great paw at him. “Whatever it is you’re doing.”
“I was just warming up.”
“That’s your mother’s blow-dryer, for God’s sake. It’s just sick.” Abe slammed the door shut behind him.
“Finely crafted…funny and insightful…. The folk who inhabit Godsfinger are a delightful crew of nosy-parkers, pulpit thumpers, main chancers, dirt farmers, romantic hopefuls and busybody charismatics.” -- The Hamilton Spectator
“Anderson-Dargatz has done [for Alberta] what Margaret Laurence and and Sinclair Ross have done for small-town Manitoba and Saskatchewan…. Exquisite.” -- The Edmonton Journal
“Few contemporary Canadian novelists can match [Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s] ability to capture those moments of acutely observed rural life that conjure mood and a way of life.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Funny, sharp [and] very satisfying.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)
“It’s Anderson-Dargatz’s particular genius to understand that most rural people don’t travel far from home, and that their communities can provide health and salvation as well as angst and isolation. It’s all a question of who you hang out with and how you look at things. Job’s journey from loneliness and the weirdness of synesthesia to love and self-acceptance only takes him a couple of kilometres from the family farm, but it’s as expansive and adventure-laden as Homer’s Odyssey…. The dangers of farm life are here in abundance [and] there’s a whole slew of enticing, comforting, subversive and wayward women. [And] as in her other novels, the eccentricities of Canadian rural life are incorporated seemlessly and hilariously into Anderson-Dargatz’s narrative.” -- Bronwyn Drainie, Quill & Quire
Praise for Gail Anderson-Dargatz:
“Anderson-Dargatz has something that no amount of craft can give a writer: she is hopelessly in love with and attentive to her subject, the physical world and all its gifts.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Anyone who thinks rural characters in Canadian fiction are dull and bland should pick up one of Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s novels.” -- The Financial Post
“Anderson-Dargatz writes with a terrible beauty. [Her] writing is by turns warm and chilling, tempered to the mysteries of nurturing and nature. Her command of imagery and dialogue is nothing less than remarkable.” -- Georgia Straight
“[A Recipe for Bees] is heady blend of earthy realism and romantic exoticism. This is a bravura work.” -- The Times Literary Supplement