In 1989, Barry Callaghan published The Way the Angel Spreads Her Wings, the story of a Canadian war correspondent named Adam who treks deep into Africa, braving violence, privation, and infectious disease in order to find his vanished lover. In 2009, he is publishing Beside Still Waters … the story of a Canadian war correspondent named Adam who treks deep into Africa, braving violence, privation, and infectious disease in order to find his vanished lover. Why Callaghan felt impelled to overhaul a 20-year-old novel and then release it under a new title is a mystery; the publicity material is mum on the issue, and the author himself has not yet, to my knowledge, advanced a public explanation.
What’s clear, however, is that Beside Still Waters remains, like its previous iteration, an ambitious and eccentric work. The story is episodic, with fragmented chronologies and plot pieces strewn across the streets of Toronto, the casinos and hotels of Puerto Rico, and the swampy wilds of Gabon. There are discussions of Verdi, the blues, the metaphysics of evil, and the fallen state of humanity. There’s enough sex to embarrass a pornographer. There are surrealist touches, like a Bavarian polka band showing up to a firefight in a subequatorial shantytown. And just to increase the oddity of this entire enterprise, the finale in a remote leper colony is itself filched from a 1979 magazine article Callaghan wrote, “The Light in Darkness.”
While the book showcases Callaghan’s worldliness, his erudition, and his poetic sensibility, some problems endure. Non-sequiturs and unanswered questions riddle passages of dialogue, presumably to keep resolution at bay and tension high, but the resulting conversations can leave characters sounding imbecilic. Other literary effects, like breathless run-on sentences used during moments of turmoil, become wearisome affectations with repeated use. Following hard on his excellent story collection Between Trains, and his incisive, learned books of non-fiction, Beside Still Waters seems like a minor misstep made for the second time.