The Son of a Certain Woman, by Wayne Johnston

by

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.

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

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.

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.

11shadow logoThose 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.

9 Responses to “The Son of a Certain Woman, by Wayne Johnston”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Actually I had to reread the opening quote twice as I wasn’t clear about who had the problematic face. Borderline “offensive” in what way?

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Ach, you’ve caught me. I was thinking after posting the review that “borderline offensive” was wrong (although I am sure some readers will find it to be so). If I could have it over again, I’d say “distasteful and disappointing”. It is truly a major spoiler to say why — suffice to say that the conclusion really took all the life that was left in the novel and deflated it for me. It turns Percy from being an interesting character into a total caricature.

      I know David has read the book and had some similar concerns about the latter half. He may have a better way of addressing the issue if he chooses to comment.

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  2. David Says:

    I’d agree with “distasteful and disappointing”, Kevin, though I don’t think “borderline offensive” is too far wrong – I can certainly see some Catholics finding it so, given Percy casts himself as Christ at one point and Penelope, his mother and the woman worshiped by all, could be seen as almost Mary-like (well, except for the lesbian bit). Especially when thoughts of his mother during his baptism bring on his state of “religious” ecstasy in the preposterous closing scene. “Here comes Percy Joyce” indeed…

    Whilst reading this I kept thinking of one of my favourite novels of a couple of years ago: Anne Peile’s ‘Repeat it Today with Tears’ which dealt with a girl tracking down her absent father and deliberately beginning an affair with him – that too could have been sensationalist and tawdry but Peile handled it with such sensitivity and made the characters so believable that as a reader I ended up almost rooting for them. Mother/son incest is a different kettle of fish altogether though, and by treating it as comedy Johnston doesn’t even attempt to try and challenge the reader’s preconceptions – he (or Percy) tries to convince us about Percy’s lust several times, but I felt like he was almost trying to convince himself too and I just couldn’t buy into it. No matter how disfigured Percy is or how beautiful Penny, I cannot imagine a son ever asking his mother for the things Percy asks for, at least not without some kind of psychiatric treatment being the outcome. And because I couldn’t believe in that relationship the whole book pretty much collapsed for me. It starts off as creepy and just gets creepier.

    But (and it’s a big but), it is a testament to Johnston’s skill as a writer that there was much of the book, especially in the first 100 – 200 pages that I liked a great deal – he writes with real heart and generosity and there are parts of the novel that are laugh-out-loud funny, and even when my opinion of it started to lower in the second half I was still turning the pages as eagerly. I loved the scenes at number 44 in the evenings with the verbal sparring of Medina and Pops with Penny as referee; and Penny herself is a truly memorable larger-than-life creation. But there was also a degree to which I found all these characters, no matter how well-drawn within the confines of their roles in the novel, to be a bit one-note: for instance I couldn’t imagine Medina as a separately functioning person outside of that triangle – she works at a hospital but I just can’t picture her there; and Brother McHugh and His Grace are little more than caricatures.

    But, I’ve seen lots of reviews of the novel that rave about it so whilst I wouldn’t put it on the Giller shortlist myself, nor would I be surprised it it were there as it obviously works for many readers.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks, David. We had very similar responses. For the first half of the book, I was quite liking the quartet of Percy, Penny, Pops and Medina. Okay, each one was incomplete and a bit twisted but that was part of the charm — if you were willing to accept those flaws, Johnston supplied more than compensating strengths.

      As I indicated in the review, I felt the author had written himself into a corner by the midway point but I figured Johnston would find a decent way out. Percy’s “lust” for me as more silly than distasteful and I found the closing scene preposterous as well.

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    • Buried In Print Says:

      I’m so thrilled to see this mention of Peile’s novel in this discussion because I could not stop revisiting it in my mind whilst reading Wayne Johnston’s novel; The Son of a Certain Woman did not have the same emotional resonance for me (not that I had expected to find that in Peile’s novel, either, which was the marvel of it for me) and I wanted to feel more as though Percy was someone to be understood, whereas I felt more as though he was someone to observe, and from a good distance, at that. From well behind that Block that rested below the house.

      Nonetheless, when I think about the novel from the perspective of it being Johnston’s “Joyce book”, I can appreciate it differently, and it fits for me, with the idea of his enjoying, as a novelist, the idea of retelling stories/histories. There are so many aspects of this novel which I can see being offensive for readers and, yet, I understand that many readers bristled over his fictional depictions of other figures (from Smallwood to the Vanderbilts) too, so perhaps it’s really not as much of a departure as I felt it was at first glance.

      Had I felt more of a connection with Percy, I don’t think it would have felt long to me (I’ve raced through some of his other fiction), but because I felt ever-the-observer it did move slowly for me in parts. Mind you, still much shorter than Ulysses!

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  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I had the same problem as Guy working out who had the problematic face. Eh, it sounds gimmicky and extremely unlikely. Disability isn’t of itself a particularly good explanation of why someone who grew up with a parent would want to sleep with that parent (which is a pretty rare emotional response, to put it mildly).

    Also, over 400 pages? That just seems way too much for the book to bear. A definite pass from me.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      This one is definitely not for you. Johnston is good at his comic moments and really has an ability to capture aspects of Newfoundland — unfortunately, that is not enough to overcome the weaknesses of the novel.

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  4. David Says:

    Last night I picked up John Irving’s ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and had a moment of déja vu – Johnston’s book seems to be incredibly similar to Irving’s (or at least to the first 40 pages, which is as far as I got). The narrator’s voice, the mother-fixation, the absent father, the religion: it’s all there. Of course, this has made me very uncertain about carrying on with the Irving as I’m not sure I can face another 600 pages of the same thing!

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Memory says there are a lot of similarities — right up to the “drama” of the conclusion, although I much prefer Irving’s. And it has been some decades since I read the Irving, so that might be misleading. Memory also says that Irving did it better generally, even if I did go off him after Owen Meany — he had been a favorite up until then (even the early wrestling novels), but diverged badly from my tastes after that. I haven’t even tried his last two.

      One difference does come to mind. Johnston does paint a very compelling picture of St. Johns, at least the area with the Catholic churches. I can’t recall Irving having a similarly strong geographic setting.

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