Riding the Waves Ashore
- Lesley Choyce (Author)
Dance the Rocks Ashore. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kevin Major (Author)
Gaffer: A Novel of Newfoundland. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Raymond Fraser (Author)
Rum River: Stories. Broken Jaw Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Lesley Choyce (Author)
Trapdoor to Heaven. Quarry Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Heather Sanderson
The recent tide of fiction from Atlantic Canada shows no indications of ebbing. Instead, writers continue to claim wider ground, building on the dominant tradi- tions of realism and historical romance and adding a dimension of fantasy to the representations of the region, increasingly constructing it as an imagined space as well as a literal one. Kevin Major’s Gaffer: A Novel of Newfoundland, is a good example of this new direction in Atlantic fiction. It is a mythic imagining of Newfoundland through the figure of Gaffer, a boy who takes to the sea in rejection of the state of his home in what appear to be its final days, after the disappearance of the codfish. He resurfaces in various epochs, including his own future, and witnesses the stages of human colonization and the planting of the seeds of the destruction of the fishing industry and a traditional way of life. Bitter and angry, he defends his home and traditions, but through his leaps back and forth through time, the implications of continual exploitation on all sides become visible.
Beginning in 1997, Gaffer swims as far back as 1497 and as far forward as 2041—including back to the moment of the sinking of the Titanic and to the eighteenth century beginnings of a permanent settlement of fishermen and forward to the establishment of a gigantic amusement park on the site of the now-defunct fishing community. Along the way, he encounters cod at their height in the waters and a strange, talking goat named Buckley, who periodically gives him clues and encouragement: "You do what you see fit. It’s you what got to live, the best way you know how." In the last chapter, he is captured by Caboto’s men as they claim the land for the King of England and the Pope, wakes up in the hold of the reconstructed ship in St. John’s harbour during the 500-year commemorative celebrations, and makes a spectacular exit with the Newfoundland flag, bringing the saga full circle as he returns to the Cove, presumably to reenter normal life with what he now knows to guide him.
The narrative is entertaining but sparse, employing Newfoundland idioms and touches of lyricism in the descriptions: "It was his heart that set him free into all the depths of brine, so when he swam, wild and loose and with a showman’s twist of his leg, he rejoiced like a fingerling burst free from its egg." Much is left out, including an explanation of the mysterious blond girl, Gudrun, who is waiting for Gaffer’s return in every time period. Called "one of the first to come to this place" by Buckley, she seems at once a spirit of the island itself and a representation of the first European discoverers, the Vikings. This partially explains Gaffer’s initial hostility toward her, as a competitor for his role as protector and heir to the same tradition of settlement and exploitation that has resulted in the present-day outmigration. Equally mysterious are Gaffer’s apparent agelessness and the degree to which he comprehends the history he becomes a symbol of. Certainly the terse dialogue between these two is not very helpful, and there are significant gaps that detract from narrative coherence, such as why Gudrun and her hut continue to be protected in 2027 by the nameless agent who has converted the entire cove into a preserve and established Skidder, Gaffer’s old nemesis, and his gang as guards. The ending, too, contains a mystery—while Gaffer returns to the initial moment of the narrative, he receives a welcome from those who remain of "You be careful Gaffer. Need you. We do so."
Far less poetic and elliptical is Raymond Fraser’s Rum River, a collection of stories all but two of which are narrated by the alcoholic writer Walt MacBride. Fraser makes good use of first-person narration to create a strongly-realized character in MacBride and explore the world of the drunk. The first story, "What It Was Like," is a novella divided into four titled sections chronicling stages in MacBride’s slide from hard drinker to confirmed alcoholic, beginning with a party and progressing through a graphically depicted episode of kidney failure to end with a view of his failing marriage on an unhappy trip to Spain, during which he falls off the wagon yet again. The narrative is both comic and horrifying, while the reader witnesses the antisocial and destructive behaviour of MacBride, an articulate and off-hand narrator.
The lack of a normal perspective on a world seen through the self-deceiving, rationalizing eyes of the habitual drunk is claustrophobic. This is true from the first episode, where he dismisses and ruins a father’s attempt to get his mentally unstable daughter dried out, making a drunken assignation that he later fails to keep, thinking "My heart wasn’t in it. It was too much work and too risky and a crazy idea to begin with. That’s what it was. I wasn’t aware of too much else about it that both- ered me," before he passes out on his boat for the evening. Not surprisingly, "Lady Luck," the last story in the collection, begins: "This was back in the summers when my former wife Eva and I were living on our thirty-eight foot converted fishing boat, the Black North." The intervening stories give glimpses of the younger Walt, revealing the unrealized potential lost in repetitive cycles of behaviour. The last story is about Tommy Waggoner, another alcoholic, who appears in the first story, providing a sense of closure to the collection, and broadening the focus more generally to alcohol abuse in the area. This is not to say that the book makes moral judgements; the limited perspective of the first-person narrator does not allow for such a commentary, revealing instead the distortions of reality seen from within a journey down Rum River.
Lesley Choyce’s aDance the Rocks Ashore demonstrates an impressive versatility, joining fifteen stories from his earlier collections with four previously unpublished ones. Connected by the ever-present ocean and shoreline, the stories range from dealing with the impending death of a loved one in the title story to other emotional losses and gains, including a coming-of-age story, "Losing Ground" and a fantasy about taxes on dreams, "The Dream Auditor." Several of the stories suffer from occasional over-writing, as in this fanciful description from "Eye of the Hurricane": ".. .when the bite of the North Atlantic off New England reminds the hurricane that this is far enough, that above here the land is still pure, the glaciers have just barely left, the people are not quite as confounded and corrupt as southerners, then the hurricane usually veers east toward Iceland into a humble retirement of dissolution and repentance." One of the best stories is "Coming Up For Air," about a man who works at a phone-in distress centre and who prides himself on never having lost a caller although he knows he is faking his empathy. A failed academic and poet, he uses surfing as a way to avoid emotional contact, until one winter day he nearly drowns. This story effectively combines vivid descriptions of surfing with traditional water symbolism to convey both Dan’s physical salvation and his spiritual rebirth out of detachment into "a feeling of great need." The collection provides an overview of a long and prolific career.
Choyce’s Trapdoor to Heaven is a less successful work of speculative fiction. Organized around the premise of a recycling of souls through human history to the end of the world, the narrative is fragmented and discontinuous and the sections are uneven in their coherence and interest. The central image—of a nameless servant, the last living being on earth, forming sand into strands of singing glass on the last of the dry land as the sun begins to fade from red to black—is evocative and lonely, and the concept of time traveling through human history provides some interesting glimpses into various peoples and cultures, such as the Mi’kmaq. In this book, Choyce merges several of his interests, in literature of the fantastic, the borderline between land and sea, and the history and culture of Canada’s Native peoples, but the connections between the chapters are not always clear, making the central concept seem contrived.
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MLA: Sanderson, Heather. Riding the Waves Ashore. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #160 (Spring 1999), (Sweatman, Michaels, Munro, Duncan). (pg. 171 - 173)
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