Saints of Big Harbour

by Lynn Coady
416 pages,
ISBN: 0385258682

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Travels in Coadyland
by Harold Hoefle

In Lynn Coady's new novel, Saints of Big Harbour, immediately recognizable is her teeming, blaspheming, paining, laugh-geysering world. Her competition, in the attempt to get the place and the characters of Cape Breton right, has only ever been herself; Alistair MacLeod, D.R. MacDonald, and Anne-Marie MacDonald each write with a very different voice¨one more traditionally poeticized, one more willing to turn a sinuous sentence (count the usage of Šand' in a page of MacLeod), one fonder of metaphoric language. Coady's prose is altogether other. The dialogue is charged with invective, hilarity, threats¨"I'll fuckin kill the both a yas!"¨and there's more of it than in MacLeod or D.R. MacDonald; the narration is stripped-down, often laced with black humour. Here's D.R. MacDonald describing a shoreline: the "grim fences of cloud shadowed a dark sea"; here's Coady: "Off to the waterfront to see the sun rise above the frothy squalour of the strait¨to watch its rays illuminate the purple clouds of gunk that are cheerfully and steadily belched heavenward from the pulp mill day and nightÓ" The Šgunk' is classic Coady: a teenager's word¨vague in meaning, but sounding convincingly gross. And the word comes from the mouth of Pam Cormorant, a teen and one of nine characters in Saints of Big Harbour whose point-of-view we get, though only Guy Sebastien Boucher's is in the first-person. He is the novel's hero.
It's 1982 and Guy, who lives some distance from Big Harbour, is in grade ten. Guy lives with his sister Louise and his mother Marianne; Isadore Aucoin (Guy calls him "a fat Clint Eastwood"), younger brother of Marianne and Guy's godfather, sometimes stays with the family. Guy "likes to look as though I don't give a shit" in school, admits that his life is "incredibly boring," and writes in a letter to his love-interest Corinne Fortune that "you must be as bored reading this as I am writing it." Guy is the focus for much of what happens in the novel. A 416-page novel, in which the star is a bored male teen telling you how bored he is right at the outset, doesn't sound promising, does it. The novel's opening pages do, in fact, make the placard-waving fan of Coady's previous work, this fan, hesitate: The phrase "a gaggle of friends" appears twice in the first sixteen pages, the symbolic significance of Marianne's use of Vaseline Treatment for Very Dry Skin is hammered home as Guy "smells her hand hard" and later desperately "yanks her hand toward him"; one wonders, is Coady turning sentimental on us?
After all, the novel's title announces the presence of saints in Big Harbour, and since the characters are not witting perpetrators of evil, we can't call the title totally ironic. And then, by way of an epigram, there are dictionary definitions of the nouns and verbs ŠGuy, Guys, guyed, guying, guys'¨that opening-with-a-definition strategy reminiscent of insecure undergrad essays¨which finishes with guyed/guying defined as "to hold firm or steady, to guide." At this point, Coady's reader would be permitted to say, okay, Lynn, here you go getting a wee bit mawkish on us. Sure, we know you love them folk just too much to hold it in, and isn't that nice, but what about your vaunted understatement, irony, deft incisions into the human condition¨your art? This reader soon realizes he is wrong. The good writing does come through. Here's Guy observing his world: "The night is beginning to smell like living things, and not just snow." At the school-dance in Big Harbour where he (fatefully) meets Corinne Fortune, he sees her and her friends laugh, "the giggles like muttering birds." We read on, assured that Coady still "has the touch" but asking ourselves nonetheless: what, in this third book of hers to surface in four years, is she doing that is different? Where's the artistic development, the (awful word) growth? Or is it going to be same-old, same-old, a bildungsroman with, instead of a female teen or early-twenties protagonist, a male teen to expand on the antics of a Cape Breton town? Well, put your doubts to bed; Saints of Big Harbour is different, and substantially, impressively so.
In conversation with his friend E.M. Forster, Constantine Cavafy, the great poet of Alexandria, said that the entire history of the Byzantine era was for him a chest of drawers, and he knew exactly what lay in each cupboard¨so it is with Coady in today's Cape Breton. In Saints of Big Harbour, Guy Boucher is, as noted above, only one of the nine characters telling us their inner and outer stories. Significantly, six of these characters are men: Isadore, Leland Macphedron (local MLA and tavern owner); Alison Mason (early-thirties alcoholic, Guy's English teacher and Isadore's booze buddy); Hugh Gillis (an honours high-school graduate who prefers to work in town and party with "the boys"); Howard Fortune (another honours grad, and pretentious); and Gordie MacLellan (an RCMP constable fumbling through an investigation of Guy's rumoured abuse of Corinne). Corinne has let slip the idea that Guy did something very bad to her, and this claim triggers a vendetta hunt by her brother Howard and his new friend Hugh.
Corrine's charge against Guy powers much of the novel, which now becomes a globe held and spun by nine different characters¨friends, family, outsiders, Guy and Corinne¨as the rumour, hurricane-like, gathers force and compels into comment and action a number of Big Harbourites. In the ensuing hurly-burly, we hear all manner of remarks on all manner of things. Pam Cormorant (the wise-teen character similar to Coady's heroine Bridget Murphy in her 1998 novel Strange Heaven), watches her jobless, recovering-alcoholic father and thinks: "Drunk is the opposite of employed." Leland, the tavern-owner-cum-MLA and eternal friend to the boozy Isadore (now laid up with a sore back), offers the latter a free beer, and we get the following: "The inside of [Leland's] head was a swamp of impotence and conflict, feelings Isadore always evoked in him¨the need to be of help struggling against the need to wrap his hands around his old friend's neck and squeeze...[and] MarianneÓseemed to want the same thing Leland did. Friendship. Peace on earth." Leland is a classic Coady character¨as classic as David Adams Richards, in the vein of Joe Walsh¨a flawed man struggling to do his best for others in a flawed world. But Coady's triumph on this front, in this novel, is Hugh Gillis, and his changing attitude to Howard Fortune.
Hugh despises Howard's superior airs around everyone, his "slow-blinked" look. Hugh knows why he hates him: "Because Howard was big and handsome and smart, there was scarcely anyone who could stand against this kind of thing. And somewhere deep inside himself, Hugh considered this sort of behaviour an abuse of power¨the kind of power Hugh knew he possessed as well and tried to be responsible about." Hugh tries to overcome his dislike and takes Howard out one night for numerous pitchers of beer; then, when the rumour of Guy's abuse of Corinne starts to circulate, Hugh and Howard become vigilantes cruising the tavern parking-lots, haranguing random youths in their search for Guy. Eventually Hugh understands something: "Hugh was soaked all of a sudden in the knowledge that Howard was alone." And Hugh's epiphany continues: "It was the first time a thing as dreadful and real as this compassion had brushed against him, and as a result, the nice world that had always seemed laid out for his pleasure was revealed as something else. A living and arbitrary thing, independent of Hugh's wishes or beliefs. Determined to make him doubt, to make him old." Other characters in this ambitious novel, characters young and not-so-young, also pass through the flaming rings of hope and disappointment, and, like Hugh, come to conclusions which "make [them] old." But still, overarching all the violence and boredom and gossip and drinking in Big Harbour, there is a palpable sense of community. Even Howard, the poster-boy for Supercilious Youth, the brain who could have had it all¨i.e. permanently left Big Harbour for better things¨realizes, despite the fact that he merely "grunted a response" when older men offered to buy him beer for defending his sister, that "they heard something else. He belonged, whether he liked it or not."
In Saints of Big Harbour, thirty-two-year-old Lynn Coady shows no dulling of her writerly prowess; she can still carve her way to the truth of the human heart. And though the knife will always hurt, in her hands it can also make the patient laugh. ˛

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