CAN THINGS get much bleaker than this?" fans (and critics) of the New Brunswick writer David Adams Richards may well have asked after the publication of his 1990 novel, Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace.
Richards provides his answer in his seventh novel, For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, and it is a resounding, uncompromising "yes." Again, the author's terrain is familiar: the communities and landscapes of the Miramichi Valley that have infused his novels since his first, The Coming of Winter, was published 19 years ago. Always in Richards's work, the voice and story are unsettling - unvarnished and unapologetic reports from a stripped-down, elemental world seldom encountered in much of Canadian literature, which, despite marginal and multicultural inroads, still emanates largely from an urban, middleclass consciousness.
This time, Richards tells the story of Jerry Bines, a character who first appeared in Road to the Stilt House (1985). Bines is a man doomed to a violent outsider's status almost from the day of his birth. He has already spent four years in prison by the time he is 23. His mother died when he was five, his abusive, alcoholic father by the time he was 15.
As the novel opens, he's been acquitted on a murder charge but is estranged from his Pentecostal wife, and his four-year-old son has leukemia. By the novel's end he's dead, stabbed four days before Christmas by a small-time criminal acquaintance named Gary Percy Rils.
Sounds hopelessly depressing, doesn't it? And it is, it is. Yet, because of his potent, spare, naturalistic style and his refusal to either romanticize or psychologize his characters, Richards manages to make For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down the tale of a survivor, not a loser. The resulting novel is a stunning rebuke to the growing trend of simplistic, smug righteousness about crime and punishment currently sweeping North America.
Bines is a man who has broken the law, who can barely read, is largely inarticulate, and who lacks a number of "social skills," no doubt about that, but he is not Satan incarnate, Richards tells us. Given his resources, he has stitched his life together as best he could. The only largesse in his life seems to be a verbal tic that impels Bines to repeat statements when he speaks. "Doin good doing good right," Bines says when asked how he is. "Like yet father - donchal Will," Jerry asks his son just before he dies. "Like your father."
But who Bines is and who the community wants to make him into are two different "truths."
The novel's point of view is both challenging and moving: in what can only be described as a diffuse narrative voice, readers are given glimpses of Bines through a combination of reportage, flashbacks, and stark description.
One of Richards's most interesting narrative devices is a nine-year-old boy named Andrew, who measures his own meeting with Bines against adult-male gossip about him. Andrew's impulse is to romanticize Jerry because he is infatuated by his "wonderfully attractive smile, a smile which suggested that he would die in a second for whatever he believed in, in whatever place, no matter what." At the opposite end of the spectrum is the doctrinaire judgementalism of Vera, a sometime journalist who undertakes to write a book about Bines's "story," a project that is tainted, Richards makes clear, by Vera's need to see Jerry as part of a "pattern" she's obsessed by:
He was going to be one of the many people she would write about, but she felt that he would be at the centre of a long history of "maleness" and "patriarchy," which is how she described it, to her friends and devotees.
To both Andrew and Vera, as to almost everyone else who discusses him, Jerry becomes a vehicle; his "story" is appropriated, if you will, as a means by which people understand "life" by focusing on someone other than themselves.
It will be instructive to chart the critical reaction to For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. It does not tell a savoury story; it questions naive views of manhood; it vigorously prods facile liberal sentiments; it even evokes the image of Christ to suggest that men like Bines are crucified by their society. In short, it is a novel that demands reading, but it is not a novel anyone will be able to read in moral comfort.