That is the opening paragraph of The Son of a Certain Woman and, with one very important exception, it is as concise a précis of this novel as you could ever ask for. The setting is St. John’s, Newfoundland; the time is the near present; and our “hero” is Percy Joyce, a grotesquely birth-marked, gangly-pawed freak whose mind, it will turn out, is every bit as challenging as the look of his face and his over-sized hands and feet.
Most of the people who knew my mother either slept with her or wished they had, including me, my aunt Medina and a man who boarded with us; though he was neither old nor someone’s father, he went by the name of “Pops”. I know that’s ambiguous, but it’s better left ambiguous for now. As for me wanting to sleep with my mother, if you disapprove, try spending your childhood with a face that looks long past its prime, with hands and feet like the paws of some prehuman that foraged on all fours — and then get back to me. Or better yet, read on.
Let’s deal with the face first:
You may have seen people with birthmarks like mine. Something like mine, anyway, for mine are at the far worst end of the spectrum. Doctors call them “port wine stains” even though no one, when they see one, thinks of port. They’re also described as strawberry-colored, even thought they’re not. My mother said they call them “strawberry” to “put the best face on it”, then apologized for what was an unintended pun.
Those excerpts come from the first two pages of Wayne Johnston’s latest novel and those who have read him before will not be surprised. The Newfoundland born-and-raised novelist loves his “home” and its quirks — that’s the realism aspect that anchors his novels. But to tell his story, it is important that his “realist” world has an over-riding element of the absurd, in this case the grotesque look of his narrator, the young Percy, and some of the “rebounds” that look produces.
Like most of the men and boys of St. John’s, Percy is sexually attracted to his mother — he is only five when he discovers this, but it will become more important as the novel proceeds. The reference to Medina and Pops in that first excerpt will also become essential and it is worth developing here.
Medina is the sister of Percy’s father — Penelope was engaged to Jim Joyce when Percy was conceived. Jim fled the scene but Penny saw the pregnancy through and adopted the Joyce name after Percy was born. Also, she took up a lesbian relationship with his sister Medina. That activity is still frowned-upon in St. John’s so their liaisons are conducted under strictly controlled circumstances.
Penny also needs support for both herself and Percy, which is where Pops comes in. He is a chemistry teacher and vice-principal at Brother Rice High School, just across the street from the Joyce residence. He is also a boarder in the house, paying an outrageously inflated rent, which entitles him to one night a month in Penny’s bed. The rent not only keeps her and Percy above water, it also allows her to pass money on to Medina to keep her afloat.
Author Johnston is conscientious about his “micro” stories and that should give you a fair notion of those elements in this novel. As is typical of his novels that I have read, however, that is just a foundation for his “macro” story — in this novel, that would be the influence of the Catholic Church on the St. John’s of the day. That is the element that was absent in the opening paragraph but becomes ever more pervasive as the book proceeds.
The Joyces live part way up the Mount in St. John’s, dominated by the Basilica at its peak. There are no fewer than seven Catholic schools (elementary, middle and high) located on the Mount. Through Pops’ job, the Joyces are already connected to one of them — Percy will work his way through three others as the novel progresses. It is no spoiler to reveal at this point that Percy is not merely an unreliable narrator, he is a deliberately inventive one. He is intelligent far beyond his age (okay, that is a necessary device for the plot) — his ability to invent “productions” with himself at the centre to compensate for his grotesqueness is his means of survival.
The over-arching factor in all of this — and the one not referenced in the opening paragraph which I quoted at the start of this review — is the role of the Church:
Catholicism Central. It was a kind of smaller-scale Vatican City. There were seven Christian Brothers-and-nuns-run schools within a stone’s throw of each other: St. Pat’s and St. Bon’s, rival junior all-boys schools run by the CBs, as the Irish Christian Brothers were called; Brother Rice, an all-boys high school run by CBs; Holy Heart of Mary, an all-girls high school run by some Mercy but mostly Presentation nuns; the Mercy Convent girls’ school on Barnes Road; the Presentation Convent girls’ school’ and Belvedere, an all-girls, junior school-aged orphanage that was also run by nuns.
Penny Joyce is anything but religious but she and Percy get drawn into this Catholic web. On one level, it is purely financial — once-a-month Pops is central to the Joyce economic well-being and his job is dependent on the Church. Things move to an entirely different level, however, when the Archbishop “adopts” Percy as a special cause — while that gives the grotesque boy protection from priestly discipline and abuse, the reader knows that it will eventually extract a price.
Johnston is a comic writer of the first order and the first 200 pages of The Son of a Certain Woman were laugh out loud delightful — the section where Percy, seeing himself as a Christ-like figure, indulges in the “blessing of the school buses” over a period of some days is a particular delight.
Alas, this is 435-page book and at about the halfway point I came to the same hurdle that I have with other Johnston novels: so just where is all this going? As good a comic writer as he is, it is obvious that the author sees himself as a satirist. From the halfway point on, the novel gets more “serious” — for this reader, at least, it got less and less interesting and at times verged on the offensive.
Do not take that as a rejection of Johnston or the novel. Authors who can execute comedy are few and far between and Johnston can certainly do that. In the final analysis, the strengths of the first half of this one outweigh the weaknesses of the latter half — I look forward to the day when Johnston nails that final half because it would produce a book of exceptional worth.