Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

The Big Why

by Michael Winter

For the past several years it’s seemed as if everyone and their aunt is writing historical novels. Even so, it’s hard to avoid surprise when a writer such as Newfoundland’s Michael Winter – known for his boozy short stories and the irrepressible and highly autobiographical debut novel This All Happened – takes on the somewhat gentrified form. It makes a person wonder if things have finally gone too far, even when the novel in question turns out to be excellent.

The professional reviewer’s main gripe with these tomes is that they require an extra paragraph of indecently compressed history off the top to get readers up to speed. So: Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), the protagonist of The Big Why, was a New York-born artist and writer who spent much of his time in remote and chilly landscapes: Alaska, Greenland, Tierra del Fuego, and Newfoundland. In his later years he became a radical socialist, was blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, and in a fit of vengeful pique donated most of his work to the Soviet government.

Not surprisingly, Winter is primarily interested in the Newfoundland phase of Kent’s career. In 1912 the artist moved to Brigus, west of St. John’s (eventually bringing his long-suffering wife and two children to live with him there), to pursue the simple life, away from the crowds and the concrete and all of that.

All of which sounds alarmingly reminiscent of The Shipping News, at least until Kent shows us that he is hardly the sort of man to appear in a Hollywood redemption story. He is a mad bohemian, neglectful of his family, and with a knack for impregnating women other than his wife; a political radical who makes stupidly grandiose efforts to goad the fishermen into throwing off the shackles of exploitation; and a self-described “asshole” who perversely encourages unfounded rumours that he is a German spy (by painting the words “Bomb Shop” on his door, among other stunts). Kent is finally expelled from the colony, in 1915, on account of sheer unrelenting pigheadedness.

Winter’s prose has been compared to Hemingway’s, and that quality is apparent in the book’s dialogue and descriptions: “Bartlett guided the collier back to the mouth of the harbour and gave her full throttle. His momentum split the ice and carried him a few boatlengths. A seam of black opened up ahead of him around Molly’s Island. He was fine and skilful until he got about a hundred yards from the tunnel entrance.”

Then there are the smooth linguistic pebbles that dot practically every scene. Some are little details: “His hands were raw from hauling nets. He wore mitts to bed, he said, with pieces of raw liver in the fingers, just to soothe them.” Others are intellectual and epigrammatic: “The important thing is for change in belief to occur. If one is born an atheist, one should become spiritual. A person with no change is not searching.”

Occasionally the endless cleverness distracts, but Winter’s linguistic pointillism works amazingly well in service of the story, rarely detracting from the clarity of the picture described. That picture has mostly to do with character, in the senses of both persona and substance.

There is, most importantly, the force-of-nature character of Kent himself. There are the characters of the Newfoundlanders he meets – from dour shopkeepers to grizzled polar explorers to Tom Doby, a tricksterish youth whom Kent befriends. And of course, there is the raw character of old Newfoundland itself, where ships routinely broke up on the ice, where whole families starved during bad winters. In all cases, Winter’s portraits are sharp and lucid without ever descending (as would be tempting in Kent’s case) into easy caricature.

Make no mistake, The Big Why is the work of a powerful talent, one of the best – and most distinctive – younger writers on the Canadian scene. The novel is a page-turner, not because of its plot, but because of its clarity and richness of its voice. Still, there’s that one, slightly petty, caveat: part of me hopes Winter has gotten this “historical novel” stuff out of his system with this achievement, so that he can return to his former, less fished-out waters.