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Beyond the Miramichi - Maria Kubacki with David Adams Richards
by Maria Kubacki

As far as the literary establishment and the mainstream media are concerned, David Adams Richards is the quintessential regionalist: a gruff, intense, woodsy guy recording the tragic lives of people so much more real (so much poorer, so much less educated, so much further away from Toronto) than the rest of us. He is treated as synonymous with the riverside mill-town milieu of the Miramichi, the area of New Brunswick where he was born and raised, and where his first eight novels are set (including Nights Below Station Street, which won the Governor General's Award in 1988). One critic has actually gone so far as to say that one of his novels was "like a branch of the Miramichi [River] itself."
If his audience has thus far been smaller than those of similarly accomplished writers, it may well be because critics and journalists make reading his books sound too much like work-work that only the enlightened and concerned few should undertake. Few Canadian writers have been saddled with so much media baggage.
To anyone who has read Richards's work, it's obvious that it's not "about" the Miramichi in any good-for-you, politically correct, social realist sense. Read any one of his dense, poetic first eight novels-from his precocious debut, The Coming of Winter (written when he was twenty-two) to For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, the celebrated 1993 conclusion to the trilogy that began with Nights-and you'll have a good deal of trouble orienting yourself, of situating the narrative in any particular place. Richards doesn't do "local colour". His settings are really more like dreamscapes, or generic folk-tale locales. You're in a small town in the middle of the woods, at whose centre is a mill. There is a river, a church. You could be anywhere. Richards's characters wander through a blurred, dream-like mythic realm that bears only an incidental resemblance to what most New Brunswickers would recognize as the "real" Miramichi. For the record, he himself has said as much. In 1990 he told an interviewer, "In a sense all my work is outside the Miramichi." When asked if he meant that it was "universal", he replied, "Not only that, but also it's my own rivers, my own places, and in so many instances it doesn't have that much to do with the real Miramichi."
Within the framework of this place that is and is not the Miramichi, Richards explores not issues, like a good regionalist social realist, but rather, like his literary heroes Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, themes. If the lives of the mill workers, miners, and misfits who populate his fictional world are sometimes tragic, it's not because of their socio-economic status, but, classically, because of flaws in their character. In a Richards novel, men beat women and children, women talk girls into having abortions they really don't want to have, wives betray their husbands, fathers turn their backs on their sons. But the point is never that such-and-such a character would be a better person if only he had gone to university, if only he didn't work at the mill, if only he didn't drink, if only she weren't a woman. No-one is absolved of responsibility for crimes and misdemeanours just because he or she may be, or may be thought to be, socially or economically disadvantaged. People do the right thing or the wrong thing, period.
As for Richards himself, he is indeed intense and a bit gruff, but he's not as woodsy as he perhaps once was, or as academics and critics imagine him to be. Right now he's reading Henry James-not exactly macho stuff. He's spent most of his adult life away from the Miramichi. He hasn't hunted in five years. For years he lived in Fredericton, a university and civil service town (a kind of miniature Ottawa). Since 1989, he's been living in a nice little suburb in Saint John, where I interviewed him earlier this spring. Now there is talk of relocating the family once again (Richards lives with his wife, Peggy, and their two sons: John Thomas, who is six, and Anton, only six months). Rumour has it that Toronto is a possible destination, but he won't confirm that. "I'm not sure yet. We'll figure that out when the time comes. Everything is up in the air. For right now we're here, and we'll see what happens in the next six or seven months."
Chances are that plenty will happen in those months. With a new novel currently in bookstores, a couple of awards under his belt for his script for the CBC Christmas film, Small Gifts, an adaptation of For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down in production, and a book about hockey coming out this fall with Doubleday, Richards seems poised to break through to a wider audience.
Cynical and dark, but wickedly funny in parts, Hope in the Desperate Hour is Richards's most readable novel to date. Like his previous work, it explores moral conflict and moral responsibility, but its style is cleaner, easier. His trademark backtracking, repetition, and time shifts are in evidence, but in a less convoluted, more accessible form. More significantly, the working-class characters and rural setting are recessed, and the foreground is given over to social climbing academics in a university town and a corrupt former Native chief on a reserve. Like all of his novels, this one has a serious theme-betrayal-but thanks to the comic relief from the academics in their sillier moments, it's lightened by passages of entertaining bitchiness.
The main action, which focuses on Peter Bathurst, a Micmac chief who has recently been voted out of office, takes place on a single day. The novel begins with Bathurst waking up early on Holy Thursday to the realization that he must come up with thirty thousand dollars by Good Friday. The new chief has checked into the accounts and trust funds and calculated that that is how much Bathurst has taken out of band coffers in the five years of his term in office. He had originally meant well; he borrowed the money in order to invest it into building a casino on the reserve. Unfortunately his partner in the project, a white con man named Mickey Dunn, has taken advantage of him. The project, to which there is in any case opposition on the reserve, never gets off the ground. As he scrambles around trying to get the money together before the Good Friday deadline, Bathurst realizes that Dunn will not help him-that he has suddenly been cast out of "the inner circle" of his favour.
Casinos on reserves, corrupt band chiefs, misappropriation of band funs-Richards is treading on dangerously topical ground here. He denies any conscious attempt to tackle newsworthy issues, however. "The thing is, I started this whole idea about this novel three and a half years ago, as soon as I finished Wounded. Although there was this idea then about casinos on the reserves, it wasn't as prevalent as now. I've grown up beside three Indian reserves. I've fished and hunted with Indian men all my life." Debate will nevertheless undoubtedly arise locally about which particular reserve, which scandal Richards had in mind.
The casino story is connected to the story about academics through the character of Mickey Dunn. Years earlier Vicki Shackle and her husband Garth, a failed hockey player who once showed great promise, were forced to borrow money from Dunn, after Garth's brother Neil, then completing his doctorate, refused to help them finance the opening of a tavern back in his hometown of Taylorville. A substantial part of the novel centres on Neil, who betrays his family and his working-class roots in the course of climbing the social ladder. Like Peter Bathurst, he is willing to do just about anything to be allowed into an "inner circle"-in this case the inner circle of the university hierarchy. Much of the satire in the novel is directed at him and his even more ruthless colleague, Christopher Wheem. For instance, Neil, who once would have recognized the "patronizing parental attitude" of CBC Radio ends up, after a few years on campus, feeling "comfortable with the way everything was being said and discussed." Wheem, in a moment of blind egomania, reads his atrocious novel to his friends and, upon reaching the last page, lights a cigarette, fondles the manuscript, and says, "I'm immensely European."
"I think this is the first time I've dealt directly with characters who focus on the world from an intellectual base," says Richards. "And although there have been intellectuals in my previous novels, or people who looked upon the world in an intellectual way-such as Ralphie Pillar and his sister Vera [both of them are in all three novels of the trilogy that closed with For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down], and certain other characters-this novel was in a way centred by intellectual thought. At least, the centre part of the novel was.
"I've wanted to deal with a Christopher Wheem for a long time, because I've known many of them, when I first went to university when I was a kid, and later in life when I became an established writer and was writer-in-residence at various universities."
Not surprisingly, the novel is being read as a roman--clef. Richards is obviously playing with his readers a bit. One of the characters-the only really perceptive one in the novel (he's clairvoyant, in fact)- appears to be partly a self-portrait. A writer who drops out of an arts program, as Richards did (three credits short of his degree) and then comes "out of nowhere" to publish three books in seven years (Richards published three in four years), Emile Dexter writes with "a terrible compassion" about "the very place Neil grew up"-"about his people and his town." This young writer is "outside of all groups" and makes "all groups jealous-each in their own way." His first book is "not lauded in the important papers," so that although it has "a certain following", "little by little" it is forgotten. Later it is attacked by the people from his (and Neil's) hometown: "The attack went like this: he was wealthy, and wrote about `poor people', which gave his province, already struggling against this fierce stereotype, a worse reputation than it deserved. Certain of the university staff picked up on this criticism as well." He dies an outcast, but eight years after his death his prophetic books are reprinted and his house becomes "an immaculate kind of tourist shrine."
Richards admits that his own work has been attacked both by people "back home" and by academics and critics, but says that Dexter is no more a self-portrait than is Kevin Dulse, the young protagonist of The Coming of Winter, or the characters of Packet or Simon Terri in Lives of Short Duration. "I was taking a chance using a writer, and I started off wanting to use a painter. But I don't know a damn thing about painting! I don't know that much about writing, but I know less about painting. So I said, well, I've got to use a writer."
"There are a few people I thought of as Emile Dexter. One was the young poet I knew from New Orleans who died at the age of forty-four, and his name was Everett Maddox. Wonderful, tiny little guy. Wonderful poet. He died on a park bench in New Orleans. He was considered a bum by pretty much everybody. Of course after he died, now there's a festival in his honour every year. I also thought of John Keats, and of a friend of mine I got to know before his death, Ernest Buckler. I think of the shots Buckler took from people in the Annapolis Valley-and you know, I'm not criticizing them, but he did, when he wrote The Mountain and the Valley. I think of him as kind of their protector. He was Beth's protector and little Effie's protector and David's protector. I mean, he umbrellaed them with compassion. And yet, even though he was their protector, he was ostracized. He was almost entirely alone for the last thirty years of his life. No-one darkened his door. So in a way Dexter is like Buckler. In a way, too, he's like another friend of mine, Milton Acorn. I mean, Milton Acorn-people wouldn't cross the street to see him when he was alive. Now they have a festival in his honour every year."
Speculation about the origin of certain elements of the academic setting and characters hasn't been limited to Dexter. For instance, literary and academic people in the Maritimes are wondering who Christopher Wheem is based on (so far, the odds are in favour of a former UNB professor and writer). Certainly for anyone who, like me, is familiar with Fredericton and the University of New Brunswick-where Richards was writer-in-residence from 1983 to 1987-the identity of the unnamed university town where much of the action of the novel takes place seems obvious. Neil Shackle goes for walks on a green; there is in fact a lovely, long green on the south bank of the St. John River in Fredericton, and academics living in the big old houses downtown do promenade there. There is an over-abundance of excessively charming little craft shops in Fredericton, just as in the novel. And it isn't a coincidence that Neil's naive sister-in-law, Vicki Shackle, attends Tuesday night literary gatherings. Richards was a member of a writers' group that met on Tuesday nights on the UNB campus while he was working on The Coming of Winter and Blood Ties, his first two novels.
Richards brushes off any suggestion that he is poking fun at any people or any place in particular. "I've met people who work from this intellectual focus all over the country, so you could say that I'm writing about any university situation." When I said that the unnamed university town was, on the evidence of the Tuesday night gatherings and the green, clearly Fredericton, he impatiently replied, "Sure, sure. But, well, it is and it isn't Fredericton. I would say that incidental things are the same and similar to certain things in Fredericton. I'm not denying that there are certain things that belong in a university town, so they belong in Fredericton, or they belong in other university towns. There were writers' groups when I was writer-in-residence in Ottawa that I attended, and there was a literary group at Mount Allison [in Sackville, New Brunswick]. As a matter of fact, the structure of the buildings in my imaginative recreation of university life remind me more of Mount A. than UNB. So, it's a Maritime university. Which, to people like Christopher Wheem, is distinctly different from an Upper Canadian university."
The important thing as far as Richards is concerned is that you find the same problems in university towns across the country. And, as the similarities between Peter Bathurst's betrayal of his people and Christopher Wheem and Neil Shackle's betrayal of their families suggest, "these problems aren't drastically different from the problems of the workaday world." Stricken with guilt when he considers the fact that he refused his brother Garth the only favour he had ever asked for, Neil Shackle remembers something Cicero wrote: "You are called upon to do things and you must do them." Whether they are working class or academic, Native or white, nearly every one of the characters in the novel fails to do what they are called upon to do, and thereby betray themselves as well as the people who trusted them.
Richards says that the "hope" in the title refers partly to the false hope most of the characters have: hope that something will save them from the consequences of their actions, and from their responsibility towards other people. There are hints of real hope, too, however. The novel ends with a crucifixion, as Richards points out; the few truly innocent characters in the novel are sacrificed to the greed and selfishness of the ambitious ones. "But you've got to think that there might be hope in the crucifixion," says Richards. "I don't know. I do."
Provocative and full of shrewdly observed detail, Hope in the Desperate Hour is one of Richards's best novels in recent years. However, in an age in which the vast majority of people are more likely to read a book if they see it in the movie tie-in section of the chain bookstore in their local mall, Richard's recent excursions into the world of film-making will likely do more to raise his profile than this new novel will. Think how many people ran out and bought Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women after they saw the CBC Sunday night movie.
This January, Richards won the Best Scriptwriter award at New York's International Film Festival for his script for Small Gifts, a funny and restrained film about a couple who find themselves penniless as the holiday season approaches. Earlier this spring, it also earned him a Gemini for the "best writer in a dramatic movie or mini-series". This was only his second script; his first was made into an ultra-low budget film called Tuesday/Wednesday. "For me the script just didn't work at all," he says, "so I said, Well, I'm gonna write another script. So I put Tuesday/Wednesday aside and I wrote Small Gifts." By the time the new script was completed, casting for Tuesday/Wednesday had already begun, so Small Gifts lay in a closet for about six years. "And then all of a sudden I had two offers on the same day for it from a company out west, and from the CBC," says Richards. He decided to go with the CBC, so the Winnipeg-based Credo Films asked him if he would do a script for For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down, which was then his latest novel. He agreed.
Shooting has just begun in Manitoba on the Wounded project. Cast in Toronto, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, the film will feature Canadian actors in the lead roles. Richards is confident that his story of the return to a small community of a strangely charismatic petty criminal who has killed a man in self-defence will work as a television movie. "I think it's a very suspenseful script and I think it's at times very, very moving. I mean, you have this guy who's clumsily trying to do what's good who's never done that much good before."
"The woman who's directing it, Norma Bailey from Winnipeg, I know and admire, and I've seen some documentaries that she's done. I think she'll do a good job. I think her heart's in the right place. I know that she feels about these characters the way I feel, and we've had a lot of conversations over the phone about how this is going to work."
Although they've never been as big an influence on him as books, Richards admits he's been "hooked on movies" since childhood, when he used to go see every movie that played at his father's cinema in Newcastle (everything from "monster shows" to John Wayne). He still goes to the local multiplex two or three times a week; he thought Dead Man Walking was "a fine movie" and that "Sean Penn was magnificent in it."
He's also hooked on scriptwriting, it seems. "Scriptwriting's a lot of fun," he says. "It's not as taxing as novel-writing. I don't mean to put any scriptwriter down, but it isn't. The logistics is through dialogue, and if you're comfortable with dialogue, which I tend to be, then it's a lot of fun to work with. Characters can take you places you didn't think you'd go." In the works are two original scripts, and, sometime in the future, possibly a directorial debut. Several years ago he wrote an adaptation of Nights Below Station Street which, given the right conditions, he would like to direct himself. "If I ever had the money and could do Nights, I wouldn't mind directing it myself, or at least co-directing it, because I think the script is good and solid, and I think it would make a good movie. I worked with Eric Till on Small Gifts, and he's done some fine work. I know he would like to do Nights, and if it comes to it, I wouldn't mind doing it with him at all."
When I asked him if he thought that writing scripts and generally dealing more with films in recent years has changed his work, he answered without hesitation, as though he'd been considering the question of a shift in his writing for some time.
"Yeah, I think my work has changed, and I don't know if movies have had that much to do with it. But what it has to do with, is when I did Blood Ties, and then Lives of Short Duration-especially Lives of Short Duration-I'd gone about as far as in that direction as I could possibly go, for me, and I decided that I wanted to become more analytical in my work. By the time you're thirty, thirty-one, your lyrical age is over. I mean, Keats, when he died at the age of twenty-six, was working toward a dramatic narrative because he knew that after his odes, his lyricism was no longer going to be there. He was working toward dramatic poetry, which hadn't been done since Shakespeare or Milton. And if the poor little bugger had've lived, he might've been able to do it.
"The problem with Dylan Thomas is that he never got beyond his lyricism, and, really, it killed him, because he kept trying to do things when he was thirty-five that he'd done at twenty-four. You can definitely see in the poetry of Alden Nowlan how he changed and became almost philosophically analytical in his last poems. They're more like statements than poems. But he had to do it. He had to get away from what he was doing in the '50s.
"When I did Blood Ties and then Lives, I'd gone as far as I could in that direction, and then it took some time, but I became comfortable with analytical narrative. So over the last two or three books, that's what I've been trying to do, and now I'm fairly comfortable with it."
Never one to take long vacations, Richards is, despite a busy year, already fifty pages into a new novel about a young man and his family. It's narrated mostly in the first person-something he hasn't done before-and takes place mainly in Canada, but also partly in Spain (where he has spent quite a lot of time, most recently last year). Next year, he plans to write a novel about his paternal grandmother, who got rich in the movie theatre business.
"She was a very beautiful woman, but she was tough as nails. She grew up in poverty in Indiantown in Newcastle [on the Miramichi], and over her lifetime she made a million dollars. What happened was, she got the rights to the talkies in about 1928 when everyone else thought they were just a fad.
"That's a novel that has to be written."

Maria Kudacki is the book review editor, and a columnist, at the New Brunswick Reader, the weekend magazine of the Telegraph-Journal. She is also a regular contributor to Artsatlantic.

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