Howard O’Hagan once told me over a couple of Bushmills in his Victoria apartment, sometime in 1978 I think, that the law had very little to do with truth, that law courts were really halls of fiction and a real good story was about all you could expect from witnesses, and that generally each witness could honestly contradict each other and even create individual fictions which they believed to be true. Any car accident witness statement tells us this is accurate. O’Hagan told me he had studied law at McGill, got his degree, and managed to convict one man and get another defendant off. O’Hagan liked to downplay his education at McGill. He preferred to be seen as a simple horse wrangler while in truth he had a keen, well-read, and sophisticated mind. Howard O’Hagan was a lot more than the tough mountain man image he projected. Though it was sad to see this tall, virile man in a wheelchair, his mind was still lively and acute. He loved argument, debate, the mystery of the imponderable. He also liked yarns and stories, particularly those that had inexplicable edges, but like the grass, just grew out of nowhere. He once told me to write like that—as the grass grows—naturally and without affectation. Tay John is written in that fashion. But O’Hagan’s training as a lawyer has a lot to do with the way in which the novel Tay John emerged.
I remember those conversations because I don’t think there has been a recent clear reading of Hagan’s Tay John. It’s curious to me that academics run about with self-provided templates about the “novel,” sure of their probity, and apply them to books which have no intention of ever fitting into their specific design. Whatever the “novel” is, it seems to me to be as fluid and mutable as the bits and pieces of journals and diaries and character sketches and travel sketches which constitute its genetic ancestry. Similarly, anyone who writes fiction knows that the implicit decisions about voice, point of view, selection, exclusion, and order are key to what turns out to be the interest in the story.
I skip through a lot of contemporary fiction because it is boring, preoccupied with cementing numerous bits and pieces together into huge politically correct tracts, which all too often overwhelm the story’s frail plot. You can skim whole pages of unnecessary background. It tells us too much. It is too earnest. The fragmented but insightful glimpse is, I think, more valuable than the laborious plod through detail. And I’m not sure we are actually intended to believe everything we’re told in Tay John. Much fiction is the pleading of a case, the careful marshalling of evidence, the argument for the defence or prosecution of the characters, the unravelling of the inner facts, circumstances, motives for their actions, and the implied judgment of the events at the end. Tay John is only in part like that. I think it’s true as readers we like to have something to work out ourselves, to kick about in our minds, as long as there is some kind of implicit structure to guide us. Tay John is the kind of fiction that never arrives at the stage of judgment.
As a novel, Tay John’s structure has been tried and found wanting. It is seen as a “rough-edged chronicle” or a half-formed fictional text. This is simply incorrect. Tay John certainly does have a carefully conceived structure, based on a collateral examination, similar to a pre-trial voir dire—examination for discovery. What O’Hagan had in mind in Tay John is based on simple legal precepts. The novel ponders the quasi-legal question—who was Tay John? What makes a mythical figure? The “case” of Tay John, in reply, presents a great example of typical sprawling voir dire, a text which examines the circumlocutious web of evidence and witnesses, leaving a circular trail of shreds, like the recurring tufts of hair, mentioned in the novel. All of this, the reader, as jury member, lawyer, or judge, has to sift through.
Tay John is more like an examination for discovery than an attempt in court to explain or argue a case. Like Conrad, O’Hagan leaves us to consider the interstices of the unknowable, content to present only that which is visible, the shell around the nut. And no one, including the author, is under oath in order to make a decisive declaration. Readers only have to look at the section headings of the novel, “Hearsay” and “Evidence without a Finding,” to realize that O’Hagan was simultaneously creating and criticising in legal terms the very existence of his mythical figure in Tay John. Moreover, O’Hagan suggests that distance creates the myths. Proximity questions them. The circular structure of the novel brings us as reader-deliberators to consider the case at first from long distance—the distance of myth—then from closer witnesses’ observation, to our own first-hand observation at Lucerne, and then from diminishing distances as the witnesses become marginal once more, and the narrative merges again into the hint of the supernatural. The whole novel is subject to the concept of law.
From the beginning of the novel, Tay John as a character is in trouble with the law. From both Indian and white perspectives, he makes decisions or falls into situations which lead him slap-bang against rules and cultural order. He never has a home or an accepted cultural base. From the beginning he is an outsider. The first section, for example, employs all the authorial distance and mysteries of a voir dire whose intention is to ask questions about the background and context and historiography of a character about to be put on trial, whose genealogy and family and social background need to be thoroughly explicated in order to reveal just what the case might be about. Some aspects of it are like a pre-trial report or like a lawyer putting a case together. Hence, we read of Red Rorty’s religious madness largely from his misunderstanding of the Bible, of Tay John’s possible birth out of the dead earth, his suggested ancestry, the possible reasons for his alienation, his denial of a leadership role, his inherited genetic incapacity to deal with women, and his series of his inexplicable encounters with the supernatural. None of this has presented us with evidence, but merely as the rambling information pertinent to a case that a major voir dire would require.
O’Hagan cleverly employs a prose style, pseudo-Biblical at times, to distance us from the plaintiff/defendant, Tay John, using a telephoto lens to keep the figures mysterious and far-off, merged with nature and indigenous mythology. Later in this circular trial, O’Hagan, like a clever cinematographer, will bring us in close up, right face to face with the defendant, so that we, as readers/jury, make up our own minds about his character. But only very briefly do we see Tay John in close-up in the dock. O’Hagan quickly pushes the lens even further out, so that at the end of the novel, Tay John is a mysterious figure in the landscape again.
But in the middle, Denham becomes our eyewitness. However, Denham’s reliability as a witness is also debatable. Jackie’s story is designed by O’Hagan merely as hearsay, a bar tale, and thus not admissible in a proper trial. Yet it is from “Jackie’s tale” that we, as reader/jury, develop most of our image of Tay John as a larger-than-life heroic dominator of natural forces, the supernatural figure of myth. But it’s a pretty clever fictional move on O’Hagan’s part to both create a larger-than-life mythical figure and yet debunk its very existence at the same time, by undermining the verity of the hearsay tale that brings Tay John closer to our view. Denham is as much a barfly, a gossip, as he is a real mountain man. He’s a gossiping misogynist macho bullshitter, progenitor, maybe, of Webb in Kroetesch’s Badlands. Similarly, our picture of Ardith is largely Denham’s. And Ardith is as far off from Jackie’s understanding as Tay John. Denham observes Tay John but doesn’t lift a finger to befriend or support him, even though he is the hero of Jackie’s tale. He is merely all “mouth and trousers,” as one’s old aunty used to remark. Denham, or his nephew, used to be found in every small beer parlour on Vancouver Island. Now he probably plays golf in a pink shirt at a local country club.
O’Hagan also employs a neat fictional trick with other clothing as he brings Tay John closer to the jury/readers. Starting with the red tunic Tay John is given by the French gold seekers, Tay John undergoes costume changes that reflect his cultural transition and his inevitable debunking as hero. His animal skin clothing at McLeod’s cabin changes to the Western dress he acquires from the Alderson hunting party. He is now dressed up for a white trial and by white rules. But in typical Jungian fashion after the trial at McLeod’s cabin, where Tay John’s simple honesty appears to win out, but only because the charges are dropped, the black cowboy hat goes spinning off in the wind, as if implicitly Tay John has tried and rejected the fake Western values of the hunting group he has guided.
Curiously enough, until Julia speaks at the trial, all the men are convinced of Tay John’s guilt. Perhaps if Tay John’s genetic histories or past actions were admissible evidence, for example, Schwab’s breech clout incident, the reader/jury might have developed a more jaundiced view of the defendant. However, Tay John’s story is balanced by Julia Alderson’s reluctance to pursue the matter, either because of her teasing question the previous night, or because the exposure of her claims amongst the all-male gathering, including her husband, is too dreadful to contemplate. Tay John rides off scot-free.
We never do find out what really happened and that, of course, is part of O’Hagan’s overriding plan for the novel. Rarely do we see events actually happen. They are reported to us in a manner that makes the bulk of them unsuitable for legal purposes but intriguing as fictional modes. But at Tay John’s trial, again there is no real evidence, except that of a witness who changes her story for reasons that remain unclear.
The whole fictional process of Tay John as a legal expedition into the verity of mythical figures takes a series of sideways dances. We are left to ponder whether Tay John really is the mythical superhero, killer of grizzly she-bears, lone hunter of the wild unknown Rockies. Or is he merely a sucker for women like both his uncles, Red Rorty and Father Rorty, who end up destroying themselves over sexuality?
Ardith Aeriola may give us a clue here, if not some convincing evidence. She is the catalyst for the final fugitive status of Tay John. Both she and Tay John are outsiders. Ardith is a fugitive from at least a voir dire of her own, if not legal charges herself back East. In terms of justice, the haze again neatly covers the reality of her life with hearsay, based as it is on Denham’s shaky account. As tempting worldly Eve in the Rocky Mountain wilderness, Ardith manages to unbalance at least three men, probably four. Denham is teased, taunted, and rejected, so his evidence about Ardith is dubious. Father Rorty shows his genetic proclivity to destroy himself in dealing with female flesh, and ends up in a soul-destructive imitation of a New World Christ, complete with New World stigmata martin bites in his belly. Religious law has done him in, as it has his brother Red Rorty. The truth of the Word of the Bible takes a shellacking in O’Hagan’s Tay John. Anyone who thinks the Word fits into the Rockies is doomed. O’Hagan makes sure of that—witness Tay John’s literal interpretation of the Bible after the card game gambling at McLeod’s cabin, and the subsequent mutilation of his hand.
Similarly, anyone who takes hearsay or story for truth and builds on it is bound to fail to comprehend the essential diversity of evidence. I think O’Hagan is warning us that the Word, in law, as in religion, is merely subject to interpretation, to fictional persuasion.
Dobble is less subject to religious problems, but vulnerable to commercial venality and economic lust. He picks the wrong person in Ardith, though on the surface she looks a good bet for someone like Dobble. Pathetic though he is as a non-virile male with his Aphrodene girdle, he is certainly not macho like Denham or Tay John. But Ardith assumes her role as offended lady and Tay John’s assaults on the persistent Dobble send the unlikely pair away from the reader/jury’s brief close-up encounter, moving to far wilderness/valleys where only tufts of information—all hearsay, all subject to doubt, and all inadmissible evidence— drift back to create, once again, the larger than life myth of the “heroic” Tay John and his unlikely back-to-nature Eve. The panoramic lens again pushes Tay John further away but paradoxically enlarges his status.
However, while Tay John is close to the reader at Lucerne, he is remarkably unremarkable, almost childish in his speech and pretty well under Ardith’s thumb. Through her, O’Hagan employs the neat image of the little bear cub against the once proud bear totem of Tay John. This contrasts with the epic figure of Denham’s tale of the earth-shattering battle by the creek between the grizzly and the silent, handsome hero, Tay John. Born again from inside the bloody grizzly, Tay John’s mythic stature is reduced at Lucerne, perhaps by civilization itself, to banality. Tay John makes bear noises in the bush to scare his skittish uncle, Father Rorty. This is a comic version of the wilderness hero.
It’s not hard here to see the duality that O’Hagan presents—the myth built by hearsay, reduced by familiar presence. What, then, is the true nature of Tay John? What kind of superhero is he? We hear later on that Ardith may not be happy out in the wilderness with him dressed in rough animal skins and eating moose meat. But that, again, is mere male speculation that she’s ready to jump up behind a horse and ride off, leaving Tay John in his natural state. But who can blame her? After the fleshpots and silk fashions of New York, is Tay John the ideal love companion for Ardith? But the question is again only an interpretation. It is the trooper’s story and inadmissible. Even though her singing lacked talent, we are told, why does a worldly city woman stay out there in the wilderness? Love? Fear? There are certainly better prospects for her than Tay John. We don’t know. Human motivation is never as simple as many novelists want us to believe. And O’Hagan rarely tries to explain in any depth the strange roots of the drives that send Red Rorty, for example, out into the wilderness as an unlikely preacher, or what pushes Father Rorty into the catastrophic sin of imitating Christ. Nor do we really know what winds up Denham’s clock, to make him tick. Is he one of those men who simply hang around bars a lot, a blowhard, part-time this and that, Jack of all mountain trades? No. We have to take Denham, like the rest of the story, with an enjoyable grain of salt.
Nor is O’Hagan overly sympathetic to his characters, including Tay John. He simply exists in wonderfully mysterious time, a lost, wandering figure torn between cultures, caught up in changes he has no clue about, or many life skills to handle. And the further mythical status proffered once more by O’Hagan, as if to lock us into further intriguing deliberations, is that of Ardith’s pregnancy and the potential rebirth of yet another character from within the earth. Her possible death and that of Tay John by a retreat into the frozen snow, the natural cathedral, is yet another assumption. Yet we are led to believe, from this astounding event, another bothersome heroic figure may return, born again, as Tay John himself from the earth itself. In this sense, Tay John’s success is that the figures and events seem to live outside of the author’s control or direction, destined by their “shadows” to fulfill some obligations which have nothing to do with the writer, as if it is all mere wonderful hearsay offered for the reader’s sifting.
But again, as the heading of the novel section tells us, this final section is all Evidence without a Finding, and the legal comprehension of the Word is silent on its veracity. Not silent, however, is the obvious manner in which O’Hagan has employed legal terms and perspectives to build his circular examination of the case of Tay John. And the reader as jury is left to consider the tufts and wisps of fictional portrayal before rendering a verdict. As such, Tay John is indeed a compelling and successfully structured fiction. O’Hagan also told me that Tay John “wasn’t a real novel.” What did he mean by that?
The jury is still out.
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