River of the Brokenhearted

by David Adams Richards
ISBN: 0385658877

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A Review of: River of the Brokenhearted
by Cynthia Sugars

Not so long ago, in one of my English classes at the University of Ottawa, I broached the subject of taboos: "Is there anything anymore that we consider to be taboo?" After a long silence, one person tentatively put up her hand. "If there is anything, it's probably sincerity," she responded. This was one of those eureka moments that one sometimes has when teaching. While this wasn't the response I'd had in mind, the student was absolutely right. It is no longer cool to care. The Ivory Tower meets Joe Millionaire. This may be all the more true for a teacher of Canadian culture. Margaret Atwood's call to arms in the 1970s, "we need to know about here, because here is where we live," is now all too often greeted with a resounding shrug as students fumble for their cell phones.
If there is an antidote to this malaise, David Adams Richards might just be it. There is a scene in his most recent novel, River of the Brokenhearted, in which the protagonist's father, Miles King, enrolls in a university course in Creative Writing because he dreams of writing his memoirs as a way of trying to "atone for his life." When the professor dismisses his earnest ideals, Miles gives up, "realizing literature no longer wanted to atone for life but only to smile irreverently and mock it." This is not a charge that one can lay against the work of Richards, and surely this has in part contributed to his popularity. In an interview at the Ottawa Writers' Festival in October 2003, he stated that the location of his novels, the Miramichi area in northeastern New Brunswick, was meant to be a microcosm for everything he wanted to say about what it means to be human. While the place may be rough and violent, he admitted, it is also "poetic and grand."
Like many of Richards's writings, his latest novel is a tale of small grandeurs, which doesn't make them any the less grand. But this work also marks new terrain for him in its turn to history and genealogy. It is becoming trendy for Canadian writers to explore the settler past, a form of colonial nostalgia cum postcolonial guilt that is ultimately informed by an urge for grounding and identity. We see this in the writings of Jane Urquhart, most particularly in her novel Away, in Wayne Johnston's Colony of Unrequited Dreams and Baltimore's Mansion, in Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief. As Linda Griffiths says in The Book of Jessica, "Canadians know all kinds of stories about their ancestors. . . But ask them about their own bloody grandfather that lived right here and it's, He was born, he lived and he died'." River of the Brokenhearted joins these and others in its genealogical grounding and quest for a sense of belonging here. It opens panoramically, with the graves of the two feuding families of this narrative, the Drukens and the McLearys, spread across the Miramichi valley. The feud carried over from the Old World, as in the famous Donnelly saga of Ontario history, renders the new locale historically resonant. History becomes seared in the fire of tragedy. If this enables the settlers to establish the New World as theirs, their graves lay claim to the territory by being dispersed at various points along the river. To be buried here is to haunt here, and haunting, after all, is a form of legitimation. If the graves' occupants are "unremembered," the descendants nevertheless have an inkling that there is something here that bears remembering, if only they could grasp its import. "Two hundred years have passed to find what is left of us still here," the narrator tells us. This story represents an attempt at a re-remembering of this genealogy and of the skeletons unearthed along the way.
The novel follows a formula that has become Richards' signature: it is, finally, a story of atonement. In this case, however, the focus is not only the crimes of the individual, but the sins of the genealogical past. If Miles's memoirs (which he in fact never writes) are to atone for his life, the novel is framed by Miles's son who takes a narrative journey back through time "to see how I was damned." I'm reluctant to give away the plot-line, particularly since there is a mystery at the core of the novel. Suffice it to say that this is a story about vengeance, envy and deception. It is an old-style tale of good and evil, which is surely part of the appeal of the world Richards delineates. There is something reassuring in knowing what to believe, even if what one witnesses is horrific and unjustified. If anything can render the randomness of fate palatable, it is this: knowing that one has not sold out. In the eyes of Miles King, true corruption occurs when you allow yourself to become less than who you are. You may be a drunk, you may be slovenly, vulgar, and self-absorbed, and you may simply be a lousy father, but as long as you retain integrity of heart, you can never be deemed a failure.
This accounts for the persistent loyalty of Miles's son, Wendell (or Wendy as he is called by his father). In his attempt to "dislodge the secrets that have plagued my father's life," Wendell discovers two things: that his father has an indomitable will, and that these secrets have plagued him as well. They are the ground within which his entire existence has been rooted. However, if the sins of the father, and, in this case, the grandmother, are passed down through the generations, it is also true that damnation is serendipitous. As Miles tells his son, "some are damned by blood, by treason, by chance or circumstance, some even by the stars themselves, or as Shakespeare . . . said, by ourselves." One is also tempted to say, some have damnation thrust upon them, which is true of the McLeary family in its encounters with the Drukens.
The world of this novel is reassuringly clear-cut, even if it does evoke regret, confusion, and melancholy. "All things hidden will be revealed," says the local priest to his guilt-ridden parishioners. And this is true, in a sense, of the tale set before us here. Joey Elias, one of the "baddies" whose life's mission is to put his theatre-owning rival, Janie McLeary, out of business and plague her progeny forever after, is the epitome of the deceiver. "Terms like good' and evil' are bygone words," he says to his young protege. "They don't apply to us." And yet clearly they do. The novel becomes a meditation on the banality of evil, what Miles on one occasion refers to as "the rarefied air of the unprincipled." The question that keeps recurring is whether the evil are aware of their disingenuousness, or whether they actually succeed in convincing themselves of their moral high-ground. In either case, for the reader of this novel the terms are fixed. When Rebecca Druken, Elias's mistress and protege in the dark arts, goes to work as the nanny of Janie McLeary's children, the wheels are set in motion. Rebecca has learned her master's lesson well, and is determined to attain everything Janie McLeary has and to ruin her in the process. I will not reveal what it is that she does-only that she does what she does with cheek. Just when Rebecca appears to have got her just desserts, she returns to the river under the assumed guise of a psychologist (member of a group that, along with professors and feminists, gets short shrift in Richards's universe). Her goal, it appears, is to open people's eyes to their own oppression, but as Miles realizes, she will not be able to stop herself from gaining the upper hand, and this will be her downfall.
The most memorable character in the novel is Miles, Janie's son. A drunkard whose single crime is that, as a child, he took a moment to be a child (a decision he will forever live to regret), he is plagued by the knowledge of what might not have been. He reacts by retreating to the bottle, refusing, until the very end, to take action to save his family's reputation. That Miles becomes a social outcast, sneered at by the community as well as by his own children, is the most poignant aspect of this narrative. In short, the man is damned because he cares too much.
It is difficult, in the end, to comprehend the motivation for the evil within this story, and this perhaps makes it all the more formidable. This is especially true when the charlatans and villains rationalize their behaviour in a purr of psycho-babble. On the one hand, playing their game lends it credence; on the other, ignoring their machinations renders one vulnerable. Miles alone (as his mother before him) is aware of this impasse. If anything, he has been cursed with the blessing of psychological insight, and the torment this instils contributes to his courage. How does one respond to the mission he sets himself-to face up unblinkingly to the past in the full knowledge that the tyranny of history can never be alleviated? Miles is steadfast. It is not in his character to intervene; neither is it his way to capitulate. As he understands, we are subject to the whims of history, while also being implicated in its moral logic. If Richards's moral universe can at times be a trifle heavy-handed, and if the novel's conclusion lacks something in momentum, he manages to resuscitate the value of sincerity, and in so doing provides a tonic for a dispirited age. Knowing how Wendell came to be damned does not in itself make his family's demise easier on the reader, but it does compel one to care.

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