There is no shortage of male bonding road trip novels, but Norman Ravvin’s The Joyful Child might just be the first story about a grown man on the road with a four-year-old. We follow Paul, a newly single father, and his son Nick as he drifts across Canada and back, traveling over the Prairies, and down into Montana, to Detroit and finally back to Toronto.
The story is told through the eyes of Paul’s friend, who conveys the man’s absolute devotion and admiration for his son. After his ambitious wife leaves him, Paul subsists on an inheritance from the sale of his father’s antique car collection. A former music journalist, Paul reflects often on his relationship with his own father, who abandoned him when he was eight years old, but not before introducing him to the music of Thelonious Monk and installing a love of old cars.
Ravvin is a Montreal-based author and the Chair of Canadian Jewish Studies at Concordia University. In his previous novels and short story collections, his characters are informed by a European Jewish past, but this history is less apparent in this novel (other than a visit with Nick’s Yiddish-speaking great-grandmother in a small town in western Canada). Here, we see Ravvin’s fascination with how place, particularly urban environments, can affect the narrative of people’s lives.
While the book takes us across the country and many of the scenes are set in the car or motel rooms, Paul’s homebase, Toronto, is almost a character unto itself. “Often Paul made the trek himself to the theatres of Yonge Street. As he trudged over, the windows of the big brick Victorian houses seemed to wink at him, as if to make fun of his lonesomeness.”
This sense of loneliness and abandonment follow Paul wherever he goes, despite his efforts to escape it through travel and love for his son. Yet, in the experience of reading the book, a near melancholia is softened by Melanie Boyle’s delightful illustrations peppered throughout. There is an emotional charge, more than sadness, in the images of leaves, crows and harmonicas at the beginning of each chapter. The intention behind the illustrations was to create a sort of children’s book for adults, and they succeed in creating a feeling of whimsy.
The illustrations also give the reader the impression that Paul in many ways is still a child himself. The narrator repeatedly points out Paul’s “inclinations towards indolence and misdirection.” The structure of the book reflects this as well, with a “tumbleweed-y” feeling between chapters, with little sense of momentum or even how much time has passed between events. This echoes Paul’s life, but also makes for difficult reading. It’s challenging to care for a character who has kind of given up, as Paul wanders through his life, tethered only by his love for his son.
Norm Ravvin will be reading from The Joyful Child, published by Gaspereau Press, on June 7th at 7PM at The Westmount Library.
Roseanne Harvey is a writer, editor and girl geek in Montreal. She is a former yoga magazine editor and retired yoga blogger. You can still find her at itsallyogababy.com, and on Twitter: @itsallyoga_baby