Fragile Lives

Reviewed by Irene Gammel

The lobster trapped in the cage is the overarching allegorical figure for the characters caught in the mesh of local and national media, justice, and politics in David Adams Richards’ new novel: “He would come through a large door to find a small one, and then a smaller one still, always looking forward, always finding himself able to fit in, not knowing he would never be able to back out.” A brilliant tour de force, Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul has the inexorable logic of a Thomas Hardy or Theodore Dreiser social novel, mixed with a post-modern ambiguity of ethics and justice.

Set in the Miramichi, New Brunswick, punched with the familiar smell of herring and crab and salt, Incidents depicts First Nations RCMP officer Markus Paul’s dogged efforts to solve a crime that happened on the reserve twenty years earlier, in 1985, when his grandfather, Amos Paul, was the chief. A teenager, Hector Penniac, rumoured to be gay, was killed on the cargo ship Lutheran, buried underneath a load of wood that had been “hooked” by Roger Savage, the town loner and a white man. Immersed in a dispute over fishing rights with the band, Roger becomes a target for Hector’s violent half-brother, Joel Ginnish. In this deeply felt and deeply textured story, which pointedly challenges notions
of inherited racial guilt, both Roger and Hector are pharmakos, or scapegoat, figures.

Incidents paints its characters vividly with glaring, and purposeful, weaknesses. The talented and ambitious young journalist Max Doran aims to tell the story of his era, exposing First Nations peoples’ suffering at the hands of white people, but gets the story dramatically wrong. Chief Amos Paul is a savvy negotiator and builder of community but is painfully ineffectual when confronting cold self-interest and century-old sedimentations of rage. The suspenseful crime story carries the reader forward in a forensic search for the truth of Hector’s death, a search deftly initiated by Amos Paul, who collects evidence such as photographs and reports; the search is continued twenty years later by his grandson Markus, whose own personal life has been left in shambles by the vortex of chaos caused by Hector’s death. The events destroy the love relationship between Markus and Sky, turning both into wounded souls. In the end, we are haunted by a profound sense of waste: of life, of good will, of opportunities, of talent. When an intoxicated yet still beautiful Sky lobs her anger at Markus from behind the bars of a holding cell, the novel’s final line sums it up: “‘Fuck you,’ she said.”

In contrast, the fragile psychological world conjured up by Toronto author Cynthia Holz is laced with humour, forgiveness, and a sense of possible solutions. Benevolence begins with the harrowing account of a train accident, as relayed by Stella Wolnik, a survivor traumatized by the images of bodies in pieces. As she puts it to her psychologist: “We’re no better than melons, I thought— thin rinds and squishy inside, so easily sliced up. Growing, ripening, rotting . . . ” But what further compounds the sense of shakiness of the patient, and the reader, is that the psychologists in this novel, who are overworked and frazzled, are caught up in pains of their own. Stella’s psychologist Renata Moon and her husband, Ben Wasserman, a psychiatrist who deals with organ transplant donors, overstep professional boundaries when their own emotional and marital problems compel them to get privately and secretly involved in the worlds of their respective clients. Stella’s pregnancy seriously unsettles forty-year-old Renata, reminding her of her own inability to conceive a child. Meanwhile, Ben, who is entrusted with examining the motives of a putative kidney donor, is a poet at heart hoping to find evidence of benevolence.

The novel’s most fascinating character is lusty and impervious Molly Wasserman, Ben’s seventy-three-year-old judgmental mother, named by her late husband after Molly Bloom. Refusing to accept the loneliness of widowhood, Molly takes in a boarder, Saul, with whom she had had an affair fifty years earlier while married. Saul (rightly) thinks Ben is his son (Molly’s well kept secret). The psychologically unstable world of Benevolence is reminiscent of the work of Toronto author Tish Cohen, who delves into obsessive-compulsive disorders such as agoraphobia. The secrets are expected to break apart the family, and yet, the ultimate ability to forgive and move beyond disappointments keeps the world of Benevolence humane and precariously intact. As one of the characters puts it, “Laughter’s good for the garden.”

This review “Fragile Lives” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 188-89.

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