Whether you’re interested in 1980s culture by experience or design, Aubrey McKee, a debut novel by Alex Pugsley, may speak to you as clearly as listening to your favourite cassette on a Sony Walkman.
Pugsley is a writer and filmmaker from Nova Scotia. He is the co-author of the novel Kay Darling, and his fiction has appeared in Brick, Descant, the Dalhousie Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, This magazine and the Queen Street Quarterly.
Set in Halifax, Pugsley chronicles the lives of several people who centre around Aubrey McKee, the narrator, as he comes of age in the ‘80s.
Exploring the muddled nature of teenage friendship, how children experience divorce and how adolescents test boundaries, Pugsley makes his own mark on the well-trod topic of the existential angst of being young.
Although many peoples’ stories comprise the whole of Aubrey McKee, the city of Halifax is also a feature character. While those familiar with the city may have more of an affinity for some of the narrative, the reverence Pugsley provides about Halifax will resonate with anyone thinking about their own hometown, no matter its size or location.
“One’s sexual, familial, and personal and professional lives all complicate with connection, alliance, and shared secrets, so much so that the citizens seem to be participating in some grand dysfunction,” says Aubrey. “Lives leak in and flow out of each other like a human version of the water cycle. ”
Aubrey’s experience as the only boy in his family stuck managing relationships with four sisters provides some of the best sibling- and gender-related observations. “The unstable spin of feminine non-logic can overwhelm a single guy and, after the age of 12, I vowed to never again take anyone’s side or get sucked into an argument.”
Aubrey spends a lot of time with friends and is often far more interested in their thoughts, feelings and actions than his own. But as a teenager, it’s often easier, albeit typical, to focus on others versus looking within.
Music is a common thread. From the thrill of forming a punk band to singing certain songs as part of the unofficial playlist of youth everywhere, Pugsley deftly denotes how music reminds us of certain times in our lives.
Pugsley creates a sense of place often and with tremendous skill, as is the case when Aubrey tells of the band’s rehearsal space: “The general effect is rather like a derelict historical house hosting the remains of a pawn shop’s going-out-of-business sale.”
After so many carefully-explored characters and friendships, one of the more interesting revelations comes much later in the narrative, when Aubrey stops to look at himself. “Most of the time I was haunted by what I hadn’t achieved, frustrated by my inability to realize my best projects, and threatened by a looming sense of disorder. I made messes, sometimes glorious messes, but messes all the same and I knew in Halifax I was mostly understood as a drug dealer, punk rocker, and wayward oddity.”
The protagonist is a thoughtful young man with many faults but who cares deeply about others while in a frantic search for self. The richly defined personalities in Aubrey McKee are void of pretense or judgment and are, at once, knowable. Like a favourite song, it’s the hook that makes the adventures of Aubrey McKee and those he cares about so memorable.
Aubrey McKee is the first in a series of autobiographical novels. It will be interesting to see how the characters grow in the next stage of their intertwined lives.
Deborah Bowers is a marketing and communications professional, and a child of the 80s.