By (author): Lenore Rowntree

Cluck is a darkly comic novel about Henry, an only child whose mother has bipolar disorder. As a teen, Henry becomes a radio junkie lost in the world of music. As a young man, he becomes obsessed with a female DJ whose evening show mysteriously beams out of Idaho and into his car while he’s driving over Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. Henry has to live his life in the shadow cast by his mother, but he never completely gives up hope that he can find his place. Slowly, when he’s in his thirties, his life starts to open in positive directions, including sporadic success with chicken farming, outsider art (he calls himself a knit reactor), and romance. But, it’s not until Henry is in his fifties that his character is finally defined, but not without one final struggle with his own quirkiness.


Lenore Rowntree

Lenore Rowntree lives beside the heron rookery in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. She is excited Thistledown Press will publish her novel Cluck in 2016. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in several publications including Geist, Room Magazine, The New Quarterly, Other Voices, Exile Quarterly, The Tyee, Poet to Poet Anthology (Guernica Editions 2012), and The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology (Tightrope Books 2010). Her self-illustrated book of children’s poems Love Letters received a gold medal from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards in 2007. Her play The Woods at Tender Creek was produced at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (The Cultch) in 2010. She is a co-editor and contributor to the anthology of life stories Hidden Lives: Coming Out on Mental Illness (Brindle&Glass 2012), and most recently her collection of short stories Dovetail Joint was published in 2015 by Quadra Books.


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The wind is fierce and pushes the ladder over a couple of times before Henry figures out the clawed feet need to be shimmied to sit straight. He uses a couple of pieces of kindling from beside the house, and when he finally has the ladder secure and is six steps up, balanced at the edge of the tin roof, he takes a swing and drops the hammer. Six steps down and six steps back up, he takes a dozen or so more swings until two nails are secure in the corner of the roof. He’s trying to crane his neck to survey the handiwork when the wind repositions the ladder and tosses him onto his right leg, then while his ankle twists, onto his ass and into the mud. The limp back to Wendy’s door is not too painful, but he knows the ankle is going to get worse.

The roof’s nailed down, he says, but I fell off a forty-foot ladder. Got any ice?

Wendy laughs. This is good. She seems to understand his humour. And in that instant it starts to pour rain harder than Henry has ever seen before.


It had not been Henry’s plan to use his mishap as an excuse to stay the night but it’s just as well. By dark the weather has worked into a gale force storm, then next morning the man from Swift Farms comes earlier than expected. Seemingly the man has learned everything he knows about demeanor from boss man’s son, Bob. He’s pissed off the order isn’t ready, and he has no trouble expressing his dissatisfaction. Henry and Wendy scramble to collect the eggs while the man sits in his truck.

While they’re in the barn scooping eggs, Henry asks, Why do you let Swift Farms push you around?

I need the money, plain and simple, she answers.

Henry runs his hand along the back of the roosting bar. When he’s almost finished the last row, his hand hits a warm body. Once his eyes adjust to the gloom of the laying trough, he can see it’s a hen that looks like Pepper.

What are you doing down there, Pepper? he says.

Is there a hen brooding? Wendy asks.

Looks like there might be.

Gotta snap her out of it or she won’t lay for weeks. Need to get my egg count up to keep Swift happy.

After Wendy settles up the egg delivery and grumpy Swift has driven off, Wendy calls to Henry.

Bring that hen here, she says.

Henry holds Pepper out and asks, Where’s she going?

Into the panic room.

Wendy pushes open the door to a room off the side of the barn. The room has been mudded adobe style, but the walls, ceiling, and floor are painted a cerebral blue. Warm air wafts out. Inside there’s an oak table with a wooden box on it. Wendy puts Pepper into the box while Henry sits on a mud slab the size of a bed that juts out from the wall.

A man could sleep in here, he says. It’s beautiful.

Dennis did sleep in here sometimes, she murmurs.


Then wanting to change the subject, Henry asks, Why is Pepper in a box?

New accommodation, away from the eggs and her brooding. She’ll stay here ‘til she’s over her nonsense.


That night Henry sleeps in the mudroom with Pepper. It smells of chicken, but not too bad or maybe he’s just gotten used to it, and he tries not to think why Dennis might have slept there. But his ankle still hurts, and anything would be better than that first night sleeping on the living room floor, with Joey making such a big deal of stepping over him whenever he needed to go to the bathroom—uttering the same Jessuschris sound each time no matter where on the floor Henry had moved to—and come to think of it, going to the bathroom way more times than any normal teenager needs to in one night.

The second night in the mudroom, Henry takes Pepper out of the box and sits with her on his lap. A calm comes over him. After a time he realizes something else is happening, having a chicken in his lap keeps his apparatus warm. He might even start to think about taking it out, and touching it, without freaking that it will go numb or dissolve, though bits of doubt make him wonder whether it’s creepy to be thinking this with a chicken so close—it’s not like he wants to do anything with the chicken—it’s just that it’s warm and it’s better than thinking about, say, his shriveled five-year-old self in the bathtub, his mother kissing his soapy face. After a time he exhausts himself thinking and he just settles into the warmth of it. He is half-asleep when he feels himself lapse into a state one level below the busybody monitoring himself for weirdness, and into a zone of comfort without admonishments about inadequacies. Henry sleeps well in the panic room.

By the third night he’s made the room his own sort of nest bringing in a few different chickens for a visit, comforted by their warmth and chatter, their feathers beginning to form constellations on the heavenly blue walls. But after the fourth night, the Friday night, he thinks he needs to get back to his own place. Who knows what new mess might greet him there, and besides he can’t ask Wendy to wash his only set of clothes again.

The night of the dance he is in a pretty good mood considering he’s at school. He’s wearing his best ultra-suede shirt and a new pair of corduroy jeans. For the first set, he is going to spin the Canadian tunes, and Donny the American and British ones. Donny designed a sign that Nathaniel helped paint — CanCon Dance: be there or be square. The sign hung all week in the cafeteria advertising the dance, and now it hangs over the door to the gym. Henry protested at first — No one will come if they know it’s CanCon — but standing at the record table in front of a packed gym, he realizes most of the students don’t know what it means and the sign looks good. Mr. Bromley helped them put up the lights that spiral and pinwheel as the students begin to dance, and soon shafts of purple and red zigzag across a mass of gyrating teenagers.

Henry keeps his eye on the door to the gym so he can spot Debi and cue up ‘Sister Golden Hair’. But by three-quarters of the way through the first set he’s starting to worry she will not show before he has to leave. Then, as Lighthouse is finishing ‘Sunny Days,’ instead of Debi, he sees a horrifying sight — the mad frizz of his mother’s permed hair is unmistakably backlit at the door. Someone at the drugstore must have told her about the dance. She stands for a time under the blue and pink squares of Donny’s sign before she starts to move through the gym toward him. Without saying anything, he slips under the table to hide while Donny spins ‘Crocodile Rock’. But like some relentless swamp reptile, his mother keeps coming, so he begins to pretend there’s a one-way glass wall between them, and against all odds his mother seems to respect the wall when she leans down to look at him and makes no further move forward.

He stares right at her and she at him. Then out of the corner of his eye he sees Mr. Bromley move in from behind. Mr. Bromley taps his mother on the shoulder, and when she jumps up to take his hand and makes a Lindy Hop step all in one quick motion, Henry thinks, Oh no, she’s mistaken this as Mr. Bromley asking her to dance. Hmphf hmphf hmphf. He feels his stupid laugh snort out from under the table while his mother grabs Mr. Bromley’s arm and begins to jive rock with him. Mr. Bromley looks confused, but being a good sport follows along. Henry, frozen by the sight, is afraid to move until the unmistakably cute bum of Debi goes bouncing by and he hears Elton singing — Laaaaa, lalalala laaaaa, lalalala laaaaa, lalalala la-a, lalalala la — signalling the end of ‘Crocodile Rock’.

He needs to get up and organize for ‘Sister Golden Hair’. Fearful as he is, he emerges on the final la and pulls America from its sleeve. Holding the album carefully by the edges, he puts it on the turntable, but he’s so nervous he miscues and sets the needle to the end of the previous song. As the last bit of ‘The Story of a Teenager’ plays, he can see everyone in the crowd looking confused, except for Debi. She knows what’s coming next. Then when the opening chords sound, she swoons into the arms of the boy she’s dancing with and Henry realizes this must be their song. He’s so relieved he can no longer see his mother’s permed hair when he scans the gym, his disappointment that Debi has a boyfriend barely registers.

Reader Reviews



224 Pages
8.5in * 5.5in * .5in


October 01, 2016


Thistledown Press



Book Subjects:

FICTION / Humorous / General

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