On the acknowledgements page of his gobsmackingly accomplished book The Adversary, Michael Crummey (author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted The Innocents) touches on the “looting and pilfering” that went into the writing of his sixth novel. In particular, he singles out the 1811 edition of Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as an inestimable source. Witnesses to the grim, traumatic daily life in the “backwoods of a backward colony” hundreds of years in the past, readers soon discover beautiful, striking prose and an exotic trove of lost slang and curse words – from “madge cull,” “linky-pinky,” “turdy-gut,” and “shag-bag” to “grubshite,” “trullibubs,” “swive,” “grutnols,” and “malkintrash.”
A delight as well as a shock, the profanity makes perfect sense. In a place of immense vitriol and seething antagonisms, where food is never guaranteed (but oppressive weather is: the villages of Mockbeggar and Nonsuch in Newfoundland are “one decent storm from being swept into the ocean”), and bouts of devastating plague seem as ordinary as the common cold, why wouldn’t a soul swear – and swear often?
Fittingly, Crummey begins his story during a pandemic: “There was a killing sickness on the shore that winter and the only services at the church were funerals.” This “fallen world,” a “comfortless world of ocean and granite,” is a perpetual trial, but rather than take solace in one another, the main players in this hardscrabble tragedy scheme and plot like deranged generals. After all, there are prizes to be claimed in the form of social status and mercantile reach. Centuries before Malcolm Forbes ostensibly coined “He who dies with the most toys wins,” the upper crust of rural Newfoundland apparently believe much the same. Add to that an irreparable sibling rivalry, and the scene is set for years of personal warfare and a final skirmish that’s as pyrrhic as it is hemorrhagic.
Besides the plague, The Adversary opens with a marriage. That might seem a hopeful and symbolic ritual, a nose thumbed at hardship, ice squalls, and death. Here, though, it’s politics, and the first of the novel’s scenes of offensives and counter-offensives.
The ascetic, cunning, and holier-than-thou Beadle officiates at a wedding intended to align political interests. The naive bride focuses on Abe Strapp, proprietor of C. Strapp & Sons, her husband-to-be (now “ferret-eyed and stinking”; previously, she viewed him as “bacon-faced, with a small full mouth that gave him the air of a greedy infant”) and Beadle, the dour man in black (“She fixed on … his lenten-jawed face, on his peculiarly equipped mouth—a full set of ivories on the left, the gums on the opposite side boasting not a single tooth”). In strides Widow Caines, Abe’s sister and mortal enemy, with information designed to tilt the marital alignment in her favour. Abe, apoplectic, sets his sights on future retaliation. (Collateral damage, the bride soon succumbs to plague; and attired in the wedding dress, her body is stuffed inside a wooden cask that’s filled with rum and shipped to England. That ghastly fate is just the first verse of Crummey’s exceptional murder ballad; many others, equally gruesome, follow.)
These three figures – all at the apex of local society, none satisfied with their lot – battle until the novel’s sobering final page. Abe, the opposite of their generous deceased father, is a Falstaffian character but void of joy and bursting with vindictive cruelty. A frequent mean drunk and described variously as “hopelessly stunted,” a “spiralling accretion of chaos,” and “the biggest coward that ever shat a turd,” he’s profoundly, cinematically appalling: you can’t help but be riveted.
Resentful that her gender disqualified her from operating the family business, the Widow, a strategic Quaker, uses her natural acumen to run Caines Mercantile with a mission to crush her brother. Whether brooding in her office with her pet crow (“Trouble, trouble, trouble,” it caws. “Piss and corruption.”) or making a scene by wearing her husband’s clothing and manoeuvering to outwit Abe and his minions, her charisma is equal to Abe’s. Similarly, the Anglican, Scripture-quoting Beadle. He despises the siblings and their “family dispute,” and has an agenda of his own, even as he works as Abe’s enforcer (and occasional dispenser of public lashings).
From the intriguing chapter titles (“A Bitch-Bear; Her Cubs. Sodom of the North. Shipwreck.”) to set pieces that feature invading marauders, a gambling captain, a drunken celebration at Abe’s brothel, a ruinous storm, or the return of a “prinked up” Abe in fashionable duds (“he had the bedizened look of a child dressed by a senile grandmother”), Crummey’s novel simply fascinates. It’s a peerless study of interpersonal strife and power dynamics as well as a portrait series of a community deeply prone to weathers – the “unrelenting cold” and “irredeemably cold and wet” months, yes, but there’s no overlooking the human climate: “The summer was a season of sullenness and resentments.”
As much as Crummey delves into the “world’s savage uncertainties,” he remains focused on the blackly perverse human heart. Historically, “the adversary” often conjured the spectre of Lucifer. The prideful malignancy ascribed to him is alive and well and itching for release in Crummey’s wondrously awful trio, who take and use and manipulate and leave wreckage in their wakes.