Book Review: Aubrey McKee by Alex Pugsley

Aubrey McKee
Alex Pugsley

This collection of stories about a well-to-do kid from Halifax’s South End is apparently meant to be the first in a 5-part fictionalized autobiographical series. This book covers Aubrey’s childhood and teenage years in the 70s and 80s, and includes a cast of characters that range from his parents’ friends to drug-dealing ruffians from the poorer parts of town, to a collection of eccentrics and misfits who are the early adopters of Halifax’s vibrant punk music scene in the early 80s. But Aubrey’s life is pretty insular and posh. Private school, tennis lessons, and yacht clubs all play a role in his development and it’s only when another character tells him off and points out that his life is nothing at all like that of other Halifax youth (a refreshing twist, because I wasn’t sure the author actually had that self-awareness up to that point and was beginning to think he might be an awful jerk), that it became clear that somebody had the great good sense to consider Aubrey a poncy twat, and to call him on it.

And while the character (and likely Pugsley himself) was there at the beginning, by the time I came up in the Halifax punk scene (yep, real life insider point of view here), someone like Aubrey would have been respected for his musical contributions but would have likely gotten himself spat on, or worse, by the rougher punk kids from the poor suburbs.

My point being that Aubrey/Pugsley paints a very entitled picture of things, and that his sweeping generalizations about “how Halifax is” really don’t apply to anyone outside his own part of town, and the history that creates that insular, posh South End attitude. The theme of wealthy, old, colonial families who created the city as we know it only works when Pugsley intentionally burns them down through his plot development to allow for something more modern and relevant to take their place.

As individual stories, some are stronger than others. In Action Transfers, Aubrey recounts a summer spent in hospital with another patient, known only as purple-faced boy, a Thalidomide child, and this story is especially graceful and moving. The stories about the various members of the Mair family, while mostly unrelatable to the average reader (or Haligonian) have an elegance and reverence that makes it clear where Pugsley meant to go with his theme.

As an old Halifax punk, I did appreciate the Easter eggs that Pugsley dropped throughout the story; things that readers from anywhere else wouldn’t get, but which delighted me. A reference to a character’s “junk and foibles” is a nod to a vintage clothing store of the same name where all the Halifax punks bought their gear. Halifax-born singer Sarah McLachlan makes a cameo as a minor character named September, a veiled reference to The October Game, the band she sang with before launching her solo career. These are what really kept me reading, because it was the main part of the story that, as someone from that specific time and place, I could relate to. From descriptions of stores and venues to the people who filled them (names all fictionalized, but readily identifiable), Pugsley gets all of this stuff so bang on it makes me nostalgic.

Aubrey McKee feels like Pugsley might have been trying to create his version of Holden Caulfield, and the “young man comes of age” theme will probably work if approached from that angle, but it might be too much of an inside joke for readers who don’t really know Halifax and its weird insular little worlds that are mostly divided by income and address.