by Kenneth J. Harvey
ISBN: 1551281074

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A Review of: Shack: The Cutland Junction Stories
by Eric Miller

Harvey's Shack is set in and around the fictional Newfoundland town of Cutland Junction. When I began "No Better a House", the first story of Harvey's collection, Shack, I thought that his narrative seemed old-fashioned, though not antiquated-as a handsaw, for example, isn't rendered obsolete by a laser. I wasn't prepared for the depth of feeling Harvey's world could induce. The predicament of Harvey's protagonist, the aged Ace Winslow, initially rings too familiar. He is to be moved from his condemned shack to a new government house. Yet certain peculiarities redeem the tale of Ace's expropriation from clich. For one thing, the new building is erected "sixty feet" from Ace's old home, virtually adjacent to it. For another, the ruinous shack to which Ace is so attached was itself raised by the government. The government's role is therefore ambiguous, not crudely disruptive. What seems valued-and this is the wonder of Harvey's book, which flirts with sentiment-is antiquity. This is not so much the antiquity of stones and forests (though they earn Harvey's careful esteem) as the immemorial quality that can accrue to an elderly human being. Ace Winslow looks at the youngish men staking out the ground for the new house, imagines their satisfaction at performing the job with some skill and for some remuneration, and he judges them "old-timers in the making."
>From Harvey's plots, I can deduce that for him in this book an "old-timer" is not a sage, not a Yeatsian satyr, not a guardian or real exemplar for the younger generation. The old timer does not clap his hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter of his mortal dress. In fact, his mortal dress may be tattered in the extreme. Harvey's heroes are variously cranky, frequenters of daybeds, sufferers of chronic pain, foul valuers of rancidity over freshness, defaulters on sundry duties that their past might have imposed on them. If strength is one of their virtues, this strength can be defined only by context. It has little to do with physical fitness, stoicism or-for that matter-any identifiable philosophy. These old timers exist in a dimension peculiar to themselves, halfway between animate and inanimate. Of course, we all exist in this zone (each of us is a thing and a person at one and the same time). But Harvey marvellously brings home the insight and its consequences. On occupying his new house, Ace Winslow makes it over in the course of one winter into a shack, using what strikes him as its superfluity to stoke his fire. He reflects on the evergreens planted beside his new-old home: "They never failed to give him a rush of both promise and pleasure. Watching those two evergreens, he took great delight in imagining himself a much smaller man." Ace's perennially reconstituted shack seems a plausible image for Newfoundland, at least in its masculine aspect. The province entered Confederation, yet some principle, sensible and daemonic in equal parts, seems to desire contraction, reversion to insular status. Ace Winslow is one embodiment of Newfoundland, capable intuitively of rendering the present instant traditional, but not ossified.
Other stories richly explore allied themes. "One Letter" treats the life of the disfigured Ruddy Shears who, before a chainsaw marred his appearance, enjoyed a single night of love with Caroline Greening. The way Shears looks determines local reactions to him-"I wonder if 'e knows how ta write?"-but, when he is called upon to compose a letter to the daughter whom he has never known, a prosperous young woman in New York City, we discover his painful eloquence. The young woman never replies. In this tale of bliss, pain, estrangement, suppressed gifts, inwardness and ostracism, the gulf of generations across the gulf of Atlantic water is tangible.
"The Smiling Clerk" juxtaposes two young men with the old-timer Wit Yetman. One is reluctantly officious, concealing his officiousness behind a "pleasant" demeanour that Yetman finds detestable; the other is an artist whose patient work, offered freely as a gift, Yetman almost immediately incinerates: "He shoved the sketch in the fire, knowing it was bad luck to keep likenesses for any length of time." Kenneth J. Harvey's own book of likenesses burns with a stringent love only occasionally sentimental or overblown, and the reader will probably conserve Harvey's likenesses in his or her mind for some time.

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