The Toxicity of Violence

  • Linden MacIntyre
    Why Men Lie. Random House (purchase at
Reviewed by Joel Martineau

Linden MacIntyre focalizes Why Men Lie, the third volume of his Cape Breton trilogy, through Effie MacAskill-Gillis. By 1998, she has left the Long Stretch—the local referent for the Cape Breton road where she was raised and the subject of the first volume—far behind and become department head in Celtic Studies at a Toronto university. Her brother Duncan—the bishop’s man and titular subject of the second volume—has similarly migrated to Toronto where he works with the homeless while rescuing his ministry. In her mid-fifties, after a lifetime coping with her father, her brother, three ex-husbands, a few live-in partners and her neurotic male colleagues, Effie feels certain that male behavior will never surprise her again. Then, through a chance meeting on a subway platform, she re-encounters JC Campbell, an enigmatically attractive fringe member of the cohort that moved to Toronto in the 70s. Campbell has carved out a successful career as a war correspondent and television producer, and slowly but surely inveigles his way into Effie’s confidence and bed. MacIntyre creates fluid, believable dialogue that limns Effie’s slide from wariness about all things male to trust of JC and their relationship, all the while building tension by hinting at JC’s evasions and deceptions. The tragedies that ensue may surprise Effie, but not this reader.

The novel repeatedly foregrounds and argues a thesis: JC explains that violence changes DNA and travels in the genes to such an extent that we cannot extract the bad stuff … We’re up against the permanence of violence. For Effie and JC’s generation of Cape Bretoners, the life-shaping violence gathered force in the two great World Wars and the raw resource extraction that fed the maw. After he kills a young girl sniper, perhaps with a knife, perhaps with rape a factor, PTSD twists Effie’s father so severely that he terrorizes his daughter as she reaches puberty; and near the end of the novel we learn that JC was often beaten as a boy. Apparently, both fathers were permanently infected by the wickedness of war. Five decades later, in 1998 in Toronto, the childhood victims fight against isolation by telling lies to themselves and each other. Effie’s lies seem benign and well-intentioned while JC’s much larger lies hide his menacing violence, but all the dissembling results from their desperate need for autonomy, an elusive quality they define as hard-won solitude and equate with self-worth.

I confess ambivalence about Why Men Lie. Aspects of the novel affect me deeply: like Effie and JC, I was a baby boomer, born into an economy and culture frenetically driven by the aftereffects of World War II; like them I sought release from the resource-ravishing locale and mindset—in my case, clearcut logging on the BC coast; like them I migrated to the nearest urban centre—for me, Vancouver—and dove into the hippie milieu; like Effie I eventually made my way into academia; and, like Effie and JC, I occasionally return to my earlier surroundings with barely manageable trepidation. My childhood environment instilled violence as we beat back the wilderness, civilized the inhabitants, and steeped the process in rye whiskey just the way MacIntyre’s characters use Scotch. However, unlike JC, as I changed my surroundings and re-educated myself, I strove to curb the violence that I had been taught. Although the toxicity of violence plagued me, I became increasingly certain that the violence was learned behaviour that I could un-learn, not a genetically imprinted trait that I had to endure. And I sought support.

Unfortunately, Why Men Lie ripples along without addressing what should, by 1999, be obvious truths. Yes, a woman like Effie needs companionship to cut through her isolation and may tell herself small lies while developing a relationship with a cultured charmer like JC. But MacIntyre’s character ignores too many clues about JC’s evasiveness, homophobia, and poorly explained fascination with an inmate awaiting execution in Texas. Yes, JC was beaten as a child, yes he eschewed boxing lessons and learned to confront, fight, and maim in response, and yes his years as a war correspondent exposed him to sense-deadening genocide, but his tendency to crush the skulls of those who cross him makes the violence in my DNA explanation a tad pat. Support is necessary and available. I read this novel twice, carefully, and recommend it. It’s unsettling.

This review “The Toxicity of Violence” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 172.

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