To the Heart of the Matter

Reviewed by David Creelman

David Adams Richards’ opening sentences in his new collection Murder and Other Essays seem to welcome the reader into his company: “It was a July night and I was travelling Highway 11, along the Miramichi River in Northern New Brunswick. Along the way I picked up a hiker, coming from town. It was dark and warm, and the stars seemed endless . . . .” For people who know Richards’ work the feeling here is familiar: the well-crafted direct sentence, the setting along the Miramichi River, the author in control of his vehicle, and the reader being invited into an intimate conversation. Even a glance at the titles of these thirty essays and twenty-five poems tells you that some of Richards’ familiar concerns—the rural Maritimes, the plight of the bullied, and the centrality of love and courage—are going to be discussed. But this collection offers more. The volume offers an intimate, touching, and compelling look into one of Canada’s most important novelists.

When Richards published his first book of essays, The Lad From Brantford, in 1994, his essays were brief and his tone terse. In this collection he is more expansive and expressive. There are familiar references to the writers who have most influenced his imagination; Joyce, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky are often mentioned in Richards’ interviews. But in Murder he also reflects in much greater detail on Alden Nowlan, Joseph Conrad, Malcolm Lowry, and F. Scott Fitzgerald: writers who battled to retain their artistic integrity when surrounded by tormenters and demons, internal and external, that threatened to bring them down. Richards writes at greater length than ever before about his family members: his fierce grandmother who defended her family while endangering them, and his bullied father who was haunted by loneliness and strove to be kind. And Richards returns, in more detail than is common for this private writer, to express his tender admiration and deep gratitude toward his wife and children.

Richards’ poems, nestled in the middle of the collection, are lyrics: some elegiac, some free verse, and some shaped by subtle rhyming patterns. The first Richards novel I read was Road to the Stilt House; it is a masterpiece of sparse poetic prose. Similar poetic gifts are evident in this volume. In his poems, Richards reminds me of Alden Nowlan as he finds precise concrete images and fuses them with a subtle subjective voice. He is intimate without being sentimental, and thus able to embrace the uncertain and the incomplete. Richards can hold a lovely line of tension until his final phrase and leave the reader moved.

Ultimately, Richards writes out of his own ethical vision. He has always been suspicious of power, critical of institutions, and angry at the ways the privileged belittle the vulnerable. In “Playing the Inside Out,” he cautions against the “idea of the inner circle [that] is with us always—men and women striving to belong to the most significant group and often . . . giving up their own ideals and even humanity along the way.” Richards hates bullying and scapegoating. Prophet-like, he warns that the “posture of freedom is not free if it accuses what it does not take the time to understand.” His ethical core rests on a defense of courage and love, for “without compassion there [is] neither understanding nor truth.” Richards is not the least bit moralizing. He longs for a link to the divine, free from theology, and he is anchored in the relational, returning again and again to the importance of the individual act of generosity. His creative vision, expressed in his fiction and non-fiction alike, is rooted in the search for and experience of self-sacrificial love.

Murder and Other Essays is insightful and reflective, challenging and endearing. Occasionally Richards may sound irritable or defensive, but ultimately he defends his community and his vision with a fullness of heart. David Adams Richards, the prolific author of seventeen novels and seven works of non-fiction, is an enduring writer and an important artist. These essays help us understand, a little better, the fierce empathy at the heart of his world.

This review “To the Heart of the Matter” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

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