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Review by North Shore News

North Shore News
Even in his earliest bunkhouse ballads, poet Peter Trower was already sounding a different note; not so much debunking the myth as humanizing it by exposing its "large as life and twice as nasty" side.

Over three decades, his poetry has evolved from neo-doggerel derived from "the two Bobs" (Service & Swanson), to a thoroughly contemporary poetics without the blessings of academic appreciation or a teaching sinecure.

That and the relentless honesty of his work has made him a unique cross-over writer in Canadian literature, a seminal figure in the "work poetry" movement.

Respected elder and mentor to younger "street poets" like Evelyn Lau, he's equally comfortable reading to an audience of literati at the Railway Club or off the back of a truck to gatherings of loggers in Squamish or Port Alberni.

Now in his 60s, with eight books of poems behind him and more in the works, having collaborated with Elllen Frith on a history of Port Mellon (Rough and Ready Times) and at work on a history of the BC fur trade with longtime friend Yvonne Klan, he's turned his ever-restless hand to fiction.

Grogan's Cafe, the first installment of a proposed trilogy, is a classically modelled tale of a young man's coming-of-age that resonates with echoes of Jack London and Joseph Conrad.

Child of a runaway mother and an alcoholic newpaperman, orphaned Terry Belahw follows his brother Ches into the wild world of the "gyppo"" logging raft-camps that pocked the inlets of this coast like smallpox scars in the 1950s.

It is a world Trower know like an ex-spouse; he was married to it for more than 20 years.

But to Terry, is is a world where nothing is what it seems in a young man's dreams.

Legendary loggers turn out to be loudmouthed louts; the raft-camp refuges for the full range socio- and psychopatic men who stay out of prison only by hiding out in marginal professions like the merchant marine or logging, where competence is the only requirement and nobody heard of a sanity test.

As Conrad saw the vast empty seas and the interior of "darkest Africa" as moral stages for man in extremis, so Trower sees the primeval West Coast rainforest: a sawdust and moss-floored arena in which all that is best and worst in men is ruthlessly exposed.

In this green Purgatory, Terry is tested and initially found wanting.

Condemned for his forbidden love for the sensuous wife of a faller who has befriended him and his cowardice in the face of a sadistic crewboss, he gets a foretaste of Hell as a short-order cook at Grogan's Cafe, a decidedly bizarre bistro on the bottle-strewn bay at the squalid loggers' terminus of Minstrel Island.

Only later, when he returns to the woods and reclaims his manhood in a camp run by Big Fanny Angleworth (a character based on a number of unsung women loggers), does Terry come to understand the often ironic and real meaning of courage and cowardice, love and betrayal.

While all this Conradian armwrestling between good and evil is going on, a humorous undertow constantly threatens to pull the pilings out from under the whole shebang.

Full of hilarious scenes and neat plot twists that provide a compassionate leavening of humor to balance the moral bleakness of love, revenge and innocence lost, Grogan's Cafe is a helluva first novel that will whet your appetite for the next two installments.

Get at it, Trower.
-John Moore, North Shore News