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Saints of Big Harbour

by Lynn Coady

The literary mavens of Canada are keeping a close eye on Lynn Coady because her first two works of fiction (Strange Heaven, a novel, and Play the Monster Blind, a story collection) showed such dazzling promise. With her second novel, Saints of Big Harbour, Coady returns once again to a Cape Breton setting that is the polar opposite of Alistair MacLeod’s history-drenched Gaelic tribalism. Coady’s characters live today, or at least in that strange unconnected today that Canada’s more remote communities seem to share.

In this novel she opts for a fractured viewpoint, telling the story of one year in the life of fictional Big Harbour through the eyes and senses of several of the town’s citizens, who criss-cross along many fault lines: young and old, Catholic and Protestant, Acadian French and Scottish Gaelic, middle- and working-class, and perhaps most salient of all, drunk and sober.

Her strongest character, a poor Acadian version of Holden Caulfield, is Guy Boucher, who for most of the novel
doesn’t even live in the metropolis of Big Harbour but in a still more rustic village 20 minutes away. There he inhabits the tiny ancestral home along with his nervous mother and sister and his monstrous uncle Isadore, one of the nastiest – and funniest – creations in Canadian fiction. A judge has paroled the alcoholic Isadore to his sister’s home, burbling on about “the responsibilities of home and family” and how they will surely encourage Isadore to shape up. Instead, 16-year-old Guy becomes his uncle’s unwilling chauffeur and his student in the grim arts of hockey violence and boxing.

Coady’s talent in developing all sides of Guy’s personality is astonishing. In his own fantasy life, he is romantically involved with a cute little tease from the Big Harbour high school, who flirts with him but then decides he’s harassing her. As she leaks this accusation to her best friend and through her to the whole school and community, Guy becomes a classic scapegoat, hunted by the town’s young bloods who use the excuse of defending a girl’s questionable “honour” to indulge in weekends of gleeful “frog”-bashing.

Guy disappears, and forms an unlikely alliance with his high-school English teacher, an American draft-dodger named Alison who plays the balalaika and is a reformed drinking buddy of his uncle Isadore. Somehow, in spite of his unhappy and fatherless upbringing, Guy knows that only he is responsible for how his life will turn out. In the context of the Cape Breton poverty and addiction all around him, that enduring ethic makes him quite a hero.

But it’s Isadore, in the classic way of villains, who gets most of the good lines. He is huge and violent (“like a fat Clint Eastwood” according to Guy), a man other men cringe from because of his ugly temper but feel drawn to because of his outrageously entertaining rhetoric. On the disadvantages of being Acadian in Cape Breton, Isadore pontificates: “Oh, I coulda been a politician all right. I coulda been a lot of things if I was born with Mac at the front of my name and a doctor for a father and a tartan diaper to soak up my piss and a set of golf clubs shoved up my ass.” Blaming others – “the bastards” – is Isadore’s central occupation, along with clinging to atavistic notions of clan and loyalty.

The moral struggle of the novel ultimately boils down to Isadore’s question: “If you don’t have family, what in hell do you got?” To which Guy silently replies, “You have to decide for yourself.”

If Coady had limited herself to the viewpoints and struggles of four central characters – Guy, Isadore, the teacher Alison, and Guy’s mother Marianne – this book may well have approached greatness. Instead she muddies the waters with many other points of view: Guy’s fantasy girlfriend Corinne, her best friend Pam, the town’s Godlike bartender, Corinne’s spaced-out brother Howard and his fighting buddy Hugh, and a busybody policeman. Even Guy’s absent father makes an unnecessary flashback appearance. As a literary device, the fractured viewpoint is trickier than it looks and has only worked in a few masterpieces like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

Moreover, Coady seems conflicted when dealing with her middle-class characters, most of whom are hopelessly weak if not dangerously deranged. Why does Corinne end up on a mental ward and her brother Howard in a bathtub shaving off his chest hair and eyebrows? Coady never really tells us. She also seems to share the educated Alison’s ambivalence about Isadore, whom he sees as more authentic and more primal than himself, until an inner voice tells him Isadore is “nothing but an ugly-minded, dirt-ignorant hick.” This is an interesting and very Canadian struggle, but Coady only skirts it gingerly.

Saints of Big Harbour underscores that sense of Coady’s bursting talent but once again leaves the reader feeling this is an immature work. Coady’s ambition is huge, her technique still developing.