“Going Home Again”

by Dennis Bock; Knopf, 2013; 258pages; $24.95

Already the author of two well-received historical novels, Canadian Dennis Brock moves on to contemporary fiction. “Going Home Again” is an intimate, controlled examination of traditional and current attempts at defining exactly what home is — and is not.

Thomas Wolfe famously reminded us that “you can’t go home again,” and that is certainly one of the issues this quiet book tackles. A good many of its pages are memory, and Bock persistently weighs the past as we remember it against the present we must face.

Charlie Bellerose doesn’t seem to be able to stay many places for long. He makes quite a good living establishing language academies in a number of upmarket world cities. When things get too much for him where he is, Charlie simply goes elsewhere, a habit he perfected in his youth.

And Madrid has currently become too much for Charlie. He separates from his wife Isabel, who, a year ago, found another man. Charlie returns to his native Toronto to set up another Bellerose Academy and to ostensibly console his brother Nate whose marital breakup, unlike Charlie’s, is decidedly venomous.

To fill his time between business meetings Charlie becomes surrogate father to his two young nephews, Titus and Quinn. On an excursion for Titus to a local book fair Charlie runs into Holly, an old girlfriend now not only married, but also with a son and daughter. Afterward, he cannot get Holly out of his mind as he particularly remembers their being forever touched by their relationship with the enigmatic Miles.

What Charlie eventually faces are some unsettling, hurtful things about his own makeup. In his past when responsibility hits too hard, he deals with that pressure by simply taking off, leaving. He has done that with Holly once already, and he wonders if he has done that with Isabel, leaving his daughter Ava in his wake.

The discord that such a way of life engenders is subtly rendered through a look at what happens to Nate and his family and serves as a signpost for Charlie. He has returned to Toronto, to what he thinks of as home. Yet he has left another home in Madrid. There’s a choice to be faced, to be made, no matter how difficult.

That choice closes this small, understated novel. In fact, before our eyes “Going Home Again” gently morphs into both a novel of initiation for Charlie and, for the rest of us, a guidebook for braving the caprices of contemporary life.

It feels good to have Dennis Bock in our corner.

Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.