Archive for the ‘Johnston, Wayne (2)’ Category

The Son of a Certain Woman, by Wayne Johnston

October 7, 2013

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.


A World Elsewhere, by Wayne Johnston

September 14, 2011

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

I have a soft spot for novels that feature real buildings as a central “character”. The most obvious on this site would be Simon Mawer’s 2009 novel, The Glass Room, which places Mies Van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat front and centre in its story.

So when an Author’s Note at the beginning of A World Elsewhere alerted me to the fact that it was inspired by a visit to the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore estate in North Carolina, I was more than curious. I know Wayne Johnston’s work well (he is a Shadow Giller winner for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams in 1998, a year when the Real Jury preferred Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman). The thing about Johnston is, that while he now lives in Toronto, he was born and raised in Newfoundland. His previous writing is a textbook definition of “Newfoundland” fiction (Joey Smallwood features as a character): What is he doing setting a book on a massive estate in North Carolina?

The Biltmore Estate

Johnston also increased the risk factor, at least for this reader, in that same Author’s Note by revealing that his wealthy American family would be called “the Vanderluydens, after the Vanderbilt-like Van der Luydens of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence“. Those who are aware of my affection for Wharton can understand that “borrowing” her family, from one of the world’s best novels ever, might not be a good idea.

Despite the Biltmore introduction, however, A World Elsewhere starts on familiar Johnston turf (or rock, I guess) in St. John’s, Nfld.:

Landish Druken lived in the two-room attic of a house near the end of Dark Marsh Road that was in no way remindful of any other place he’d ever lived. A mile away, in a twelve-room house, his father lived alone.

Under the terms of what Landish called the Sartorial Charter, his father had let him keep his clothes but had otherwise disowned him. When he was too hungry and sober to sleep, he walked the edge of the marsh in the dark, smoking the last of his cigars, following the road to where it narrowed to a path that led into the woods.

He had gone to Princeton, where father-made men spent father-made fortunes. Now they were back home, learning the modern form of alchemy, the transmutation of sums of money into greater sums of money.

None of that for Landish, however. He’s a writer, although in five years he has yet to write a word — he carefully burns his output each night. And the implied bargain with his father when he was sent to Princeton was that upon his return to Newfoundland he would take over as captain of the Gilbert, the family’s sealing ship.

“You were born with sea legs,” his father said. “You can’t go against your nature. You can walk the Gilbert in rough weather day or night as well as any sailor. And make your way across the ice as well as any sealer. I didn’t teach you that. It can’t be taught. I’ve seen you in a storm of freezing spray, your hands bare so that you could better feel the wheel, your knuckles blood red from the cold. And look at you. The size of you. You stand eye to eye with any horse. Hands and fists as big as mine. As broad across the shoulders as the doorway of a church. A head so big it could be on a statue. You need a chair for each half of your arse. And you think you were bred for writing books?”

While his career determination is a problem, Landish has an even bigger one. His father had abandoned his first mate on the sealing ice when the Gilbert was in a blizzard. Francis Carson’s wife was pregnant, but she dies as well — Landish, in a fit of guilt, gives the nuns at the local orphanage $50 and takes over the wardship of Deacon (named after the orphanage, Cluding Deacon).

Things are not going well in St. John’s and that’s when Landish starts looking to the prospects of renewing acqaintances with his best buddy from Princeton, Padgett Vanderluyden, known as Van.

Landish couldn’t help but like Van who, minutes after they met, had confessed that he was widely regarded as a “dud”.

“My father thinks I am one,” he said.

Who better than the richest man in the world to spy out a dud amongst his children?

But Van said he was going to surprise everyone by doing something “big” with his life.

That “big” is building the Vanderluyden estate. Landish and Van did not part on good terms (Van wanted him to help with the planning and building) but a broke Landish, with a child to support, appeals for help — and gets a ticket to North Carolina.

Let’s deal with one of Wayne Johnston’s problems in this novel at this point, an annoying punning that simply does not stop. Here’s an example from Landish and Van’s time at Princeton where they hosted “Lotus Lands literary salons”:

There were three brothers who were known as Pliny the Elder, Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Tiny. There were the Duke of Unwellington, Le Marquis de Malarkey, the Duke of Buxomberg and Sorethumberland.

Or Landish’s name for his mother, Genevieve — he prefers Gen of Eve. Or consider Landish and Deacon’s menu:

“The flatulent are petulant,” Landish said. He could get the boy to walk more often if he could stand to eat cabbage a deux more often.

They had veg-edibles and Dark Marsh Fish. France’s bacon, henglish eggs. Cod au cretin. Black Forest Cram. Dark Marsh Toad. The traditional Easter Rooster.

It was annoying enough that I was seriously contemplating abandoning this novel at the halfway point. And then Landish and Duncan arrive at Vanderluyden and things start to get interesting. The place itself is bizarre (I’d say even the real Biltmore is bizarre); the inhabitants are even stranger. Yet, somehow, Johnston makes it work. The puns keep coming, alas, but a cast of truly strange characters starts to come together.

I won’t say anymore — fantasy novels (with thriller overtones) need to be appreciated on their own. A World Elsewhere may be one of the stranger books that I have read this year, but I can’t say I was disappointed by the experience. It would be wrong to spoil it.

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