Distinguished in a David Niven mustache

June 23, 2005 | 1 book mentioned 4 min read

covercoverI suppose it’s what you do with luck that ultimately determines whether it was good or bad. The luck itself is kind of ephemeral, landing in your lap, ready to be spun and twisted into something more substantial. Ready to be given a direction.

I was on an airplane recently – destination Norway via Frankfurt. I’d settled into my window seat, two books at the ready, pillow just so, contacts off, glasses on, and with less than five minutes before take-off there was no one, absolutely no one, sitting beside me. I couldn’t believe my luck. And then…

And then, with sitcom timing, a harried and rather shell-shocked individual traveling back to the EU silently slumped into the empty seat, looked up, stared at me, and then opened a magazine. In due course our flight attendant, distinguished in a David Niven mustache, began the food service. And so it was with bemusement that I watched my seat-mate take uncertain steps to lower his dinner tray – a process he began by banging the seat in front of him with jarring forward jolts. I came to the rescue.

I guess this primed me for the farce that followed. I was not entirely surprised when I saw my hapless friend struggling with his seat belt, completely mystified as to how to dislodge himself from this alien contraption. I happily walked him through the rocket science required to unclasp and separate the two parts. So it was a bit odd, then, when less than an hour later my companion tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to, well, to his seat belt area. He’d apparently neglected to take notes the first time and had once again become trapped.

All of which might have bounced off me except that every twenty minutes or so I noticed his peering head swivel towards my window and then extend, ostrich-like, in front of me, past my nose and right to the window pane without a single word or acknowledgement of my presence. And when he returned to his magazine he would invariably extend his elbows left and right, jabbing me sharply in the ribs each time. Now I’m not the biggest guy in the world, but I do occupy a certain amount of space. I have mass. I don’t defy the principles of science. Were one to encounter me on a dark path, one wouldn’t simply pass through me. There would be a discernible thud.

I left the plane bemoaning my fortune, but also contemplating how this fellow handles life in the real world, how he responds, and how much control he has over life’s little day-to-day torments. What if he were Norman Bray?

Trevor Cole’s wonderful novel Norman Bray In The Performance Of His Life just happened to be one of the two books I brought with me to Europe, and was the one I was reading as I was being poked and prodded by my oblivious airplane friend. Norman is a middle-aged stage actor in Toronto, years past his prime and relegated to the occasional voice-over gig. On the surface he seems pompous and childlike, walking through life in a pleasantly deluded state – a kindred spirit to Ignatius J. Reilly. And while this novel doesn’t quite scale the same dizzying heights as A Confederacy Of Dunces, I found myself responding to the characters in a similar way – wanting to reach through the pages of the book and smack some sense into these guys, if only so they can begin to cope with their lot in life instead of just assuming with incomprehensible certainty that things would work out in the end. Of course then we wouldn’t have these two gloriously funny novels.

Norman Bray’s problems, which he attributes to bad luck, are largely of his own doing, and the glimmer of hope at the end, which he would probably credit to his own tenacity, is in fact more a conflux of circumstances which, for once, he doesn’t sabotage. Sheer luck (which he would normally have obliviously squandered) is allowed to develop into good fortune.

My airplane friend would at least have stood a fighting chance as Norman Bray, since Norman relies on circumstance to extricate him from the chaotic mess of his own creation. He’d have a harder time as Lorimer Black, the hero of Armadillo the second book that I brought with me, and my first foray into the extraordinary world of William Boyd. Thanks to my fellow writer Emre, I now have a new author to obsess over and to devour everything from.

Like Norman Bray, Lorimer Black is bedevilled by circumstance, but in this case, through little fault of his own. Rather than being oblivious, Lorimer is remarkably self-aware. All the more troubling, then, to find him swept up by circumstance, his London routine twisted and tossed, and then thrown into a downward Kafka-esque spiral.

But at least Lorimer – an insurance-adjuster with a mysterious past, juggling work, women and family – is aware, conscious of his juggling act, conscious of his identity, and conscious of the luck that eventually comes his way. He’s better suited to the task of accepting circumstance and turning it to his advantage.

I didn’t see my airplane friend actually leave the plane. With any luck he managed it without incident. I can only hope that fortune shines on this guy and the people he’ll inevitably be around as he goes through life. They’ll all need it.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.

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