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The Stand-In

by David Helwig

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list price: $16.95
also available: Paperback
category: Fiction
published: 2002
publisher: Porcupine's Quill
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David Helwig has written an engaging novella about a whimsical, opinionated and slightly embittered professor of humanities, now retired. The professor is asked, at the last minute, to fill in and deliver an important lecture series, replacing a famous friend and colleague who has suddenly died. The professor does agree but his impromptu talks -- both amusing and reflective -- combine memories of Paris, odd corners of art history, and the story of his own life with its links to Denman Tarrington, the deceased celebrity. As his talks continue, the professor's thoughts and ideas find their way into other possible worlds, following all the avenues through a house of mirrors.

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From Section Two:

'... one of the mirrors caught me and showed me myself. As I looked, I thought about that old trick of exposition, found in bad fiction, where the main character looks in the mirror and the author is able to describe the long pale face.... A face that a woman, in the grip of whatever madness, once called beautiful.... The mirror gives us an author's eye view of ourselves.'

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Editorial Reviews

'David Helwig is one of Canada's most prolific novelist-poets. This challenging but rewarding novel revolves around the themes of friendship, marriage, infidelity, and certain revenge. It is structured as a series of three rambling lectures that are delivered by the stand-in for a better-known colleague who was found dead in a hotel room a week earlier. The lectures themselves are essentially Chekhovian in nature. The reader as audience ponders their ambiguities, trying to discern their method and motive. Helwig's novel, a seamless blend of brittle postmodern analysis and old-fashioned whodunit, is moody, suspenseful, and utterly compelling. Properly adapted, it would make for an invigorating evening at the theatre.'

— Canadian Book Review Annual

'This is an extraordinary little book, though its appeal is likely to be limited to those readers with both the literary background and the patience to follow Helwig at his game. The lectures are almost unbelievably haphazard, but their seemingly anarchic meanders are a showcase for Helwig's dead-on sense of style, timing, and structure. The Stand-In is fiercely funny, but its humour is delivered with a bitter irony that could raise the hackles of a few sensitive scholarly souls. Adventurous readers should not miss The Stand-In, but anyone looking for fiction that is conventional in its structure or its pieties should turn elsewhere.'

— amazon.ca

'David Helwig's The Stand-In is a witty, inventive, sometimes disturbing excursion into the genre of the dramatic monologue, that literary form perfected in poetry by Robert Browning, and here equally successful in prose, in which a single speaker addressing an unseen audience reveals more about himself than he realizes or perhaps intended. The speaker in this case is a retired university professor who has returned to the small Canadian university, where he taught for many years, to deliver a series of three memorial lectures. As he explains immediately, he is there as a substitute speaker because the original guest lecturer, Denman Tarrington, has died suddenly in New York. It quickly transpires that Professor X, the stand-in (whose name we never learn), was a colleague of Tarrington at the same university, and what follows are not so much three lectures as three virtuoso stream of consciousness outpourings of personal reminiscence, to the frustration of the professor's audience and the entertainment of the reader. Ironically, the title of the lecture series is ''The Music of No Mind,'' and if one were to seek an analogy between this novella and a musical composition, the choice would have to be Elgar's Enigma Variations, in which the composer claimed there exists a hidden unheard but familiar theme, the identification of which has baffled music scholars ever since. What is important in Professor X's apparently dithering extemporaneous digressions is not so much what is said as what is unsaid or hinted at.'

— Prairie Fire

'The reader of David Helwig's sly novella The Stand-In is cast as a member of the audience for three meandering lectures on ''The Music of No Mind'' delivered by the stand-in for a better-known colleague found dead in his hotel room. Though the speaker rambles, we begin to suspect there is method -- and perhaps motive -- in his unconventional address. A teasingly complex book, The Stand-In combines the intellectual playfulness of a postmodern novel with the high drama of an old-fashioned who dunnit.'

— The New Quarterly

'Prince Edward Islander David Helwig is one of Canada's most unsung writers, talent-wise. The Stand-In is not only a witty, eloquent and satirical impromptu, but an artfully regulated romp about a retired professor of humanities who turns a substitute lecture series into a pungent airing of personal grievances and confidences. The professor groups his lectures under the collective title of ''The Music Of No Mind,'' then proceeds to extemporize on a wide range of peculiar topics: from badminton, Dutch painting and nymphomania to Ernest Thompson Seton. Gradually we begin to suspect the professor is not as dithering as he appears. Underlying his oblique references to persons, places and things is a subtle yet damning reflection on capitalism's monolithic enterprise of mediocrity and trivia. The professor concludes his lectures: ''We are all learning to be witty and untouched.'' Helwig's The Stand-In is a triumph of comic exposition.'

— Toronto Star

'Helwig superbly explores complex philosophical ideas. His style is engaging and informing, his sense of dialogue extraordinary.'

— The Winnipeg Free Press
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About the Author

David Helwig

David Helwig (1938-2018) grew up in Ontario and lived in Belfast, Prince Edward Island. He founded the Best Canadian Stories series, and he was the author of sixteen books of fiction and numerous works of non-fiction, including poetry, memoir, documentary and translation. His most recent work of fiction was Close to the Fire (Goose Lane, 1999), a novella, and the novel, The Time of Her Life (Goose Lane, 2000). "Missing Notes" appeared in ArtsAtlantic (61) and was selected for 98: Best Canadian Stories.
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