Power, Psyche and Terrorism
By D. F. Bailey
Douglas & McIntyre
243 pages, $12.95
The Vancouver publishing house of Douglas and McIntyre has become a major cultural force on the West Coast, and its books have found a national audience. But like certain publishers in Toronto, it has avoided the risks of fiction and concentrated on books with more certain promise of success.
D&M is now rectifying this omission, which is welcome news for Canadian fiction writers. With D. F. Bailey’s Fire Eyes, it launches a new trade paperback fiction series—upscale paperbacks, nicely designed, about the same dimensions as a hardcover book, but lower in price. Four to six titles will be published annually, with a mix of new work and reprints of worthy fiction from the past. The first reprint will be Malcolm Lowry’s Hear Us O Lord from heaven They Dwelling Place.
Fire Eyes gets the series off to a rousing start. For author Bailey, a 36-year-old English teacher in Victoria, it’s also a debut: this is a first novel. Its subject strongly reflects his background as a psychologist and the three years he spent on the staff of a large psychiatric institute.
Fire Eyes is a taut psychological thriller with literary overtones, a very contemporary terrorist romance. At times it teeters on the brink of becoming mere case history, but each time it does, Bailey rescues it by cranking up the tension. Among its major strengths is a nice sense of ambiguity; things could really be as they seem, but surface events could just as easily be hiding more complex and sinister motivations.
The central character is Billy Deerborn, who was abandoned as a baby in a brown paper bag by the side of a highway. This overly dramatic debut invented by Bailey*** could have been toned down to something more conventional, but as a psychologist he obviously wanted to make a strong statement about the importance of childhood traumas. Billy gets shunted back forth from foster homes to institutions and is victimized by unscrupulous surrogate mothers. He’s prodded and poked by psychiatrists and social workers who try their best to help, but he grows up unloved and alienated.
Billy is not mentally ill; Bailey doesn’t fall into that trap. He hears voices, grinds his teeth a lot and is subject to occasional rages, but there’s usually good reason for his actions. One of the challenges set by Bailey for himself is to have Billy tell his own story, in the first person. Thus events are filtered through his sometimes limited perceptions, and the language throughout is colloquial and slangy. But it works.
As soon as he’s old enough, Billy joins the army and is assigned to the combat engineers, a regiment called Fire Eyes. Their role is to blow up bridges and such things, under fire, to discomfit the enemy. Thus Billy becomes a demolition expert, skilled in the ways of dynamite and detonators.
In a bar one night, he meets Renee Stark, who is immediately attracted to him. Billy has trouble relating to women, but Renee is gentle, loving and sexually adventurous. For the first time in his life, Billy knows what it is to be loved.
But as he learns more about Renee, sinister doubts begin to surface. She is involved with a militant group that opposes nuclear generating stations—violently opposes them. They plan to blow up the central computer in the head office of the electricity company; they have all the equipment to make the bomb and just need someone to put it together. Is Billy a dupe or does Renee really love him? The violent climax—which forms the opening chapter, actually—partially answers the question.
Billy’s army experiences take up a good part of the novel—too much, actually, but the scenes are graphic. Bailey sees the army as a brutalizing force and a haven for misfits and psychopaths. Billy seems to display less emotion than would be warranted under various circumstances, as he is drawn further into the terrorist plot, but that may be intentional; perhaps due to his background, he’s emotionally amputated.
One oddity of the novel is that it’s geographically anonymous. The city in which it takes place seems vaguely like Vancouver, but the army seems more like the U.S. army. A specific geographic focus would have given the novel more impact.
Some of the most gripping scenes concern Billy’s involvement with explosives. For him and the men in his regiment, who risk their lives every time they organize a demolition, the resulting explosion is like the rush of orgasm.
“No matter how many times your hear it,” says Billy, “the Power’s fresh and raw and comes over you like a tidal wave of glory. You can see everybody, the special way they smile just on the corner of the lips, a little tuck on the edge of the mouth that tells the whole story. Each one of them saying ‘Dammit if that isn’t better than any woman, sweeter than any honey candy you could ever taste.' ”
And later, as Billy makes the bomb, he muses: “The Power is everything. It slips over my shoulders like a cool hand and brushes against the hair on the back of my neck. Sometimes I think it could be just a draft of air, but it works across my shoulders again and again, more like a massage trying to put me easy. And that’s where the Power is. Knowing I’m coming into the eye of death every time I snip another wire and solder the connections tight. Each step moves closer to the Power itself, until finally the wiring’s true and everything’s sealed and I realize the bomb is God’s own justice in the hands of humankind. Some say that’s why there’s war, that God invented it Himself for holy purification.”
Bailey’s theory about the terrorist psyche—that bombs give a feeling of power to the powerless—is too glib, and only part of the story. But he examines that part with chilling authenticity. —William French
*** Billy is a character based on a few patients I met during my years working at the Eric Martin Institute. In fact, one of them was found in a brown paper bag at the side of a highway—when he was just a few weeks old. —DFB