The Wreckage

by Michael Crummey
368 pages,
ISBN: 038566060X

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The Rain of Incident and Circumstance
by Cynthia Sugars

"There is a tide in the affairs of men," says Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. At the flood, it yields up riches; if passed over, the voyage of one's life "is bound in shallows and in miseries." These lines provide an apt summation of a central theme in Michael Crummey's new novel The Wreckage: the ebb and flow of human destiny. A recurring scene in the novel describes a tidal wave that plows through a coastal community in Newfoundland, leaving wreckage in its wake. The event comes to stand for the horrifically inexorable, yet "lackadaisically methodical", nature of human fate, and the difficulty all people have of salvaging something meaningful from the flotsam and jetsam of their lives.
One of the most gripping dilemmas of human existence is undoubtedly the conundrum of contingency: the sense that the events leading up to any given moment are at once predestined and accidental. Which, ultimately, is more terrifyingłthe notion that our destinies are predetermined, or the suspicion that they are a matter of pure accident? And how do we make sense of our lives when predestination appears to be the result of a series of accidents or contingent events? This is the dilemma that haunts the pages of The Wreckage. One of the main characters, Wish Furey, is obsessed by the contingency of fate while he languishes in a POW camp in war-time Japan: "There was a sickening sense of inevitability to the rain of incident and circumstance . . . He started to feel that even the subtlest shift . . . even the most inconsequential change would have been enough to alter the chain of events and his life now would be completely different." The novel, as a whole, provides an extended meditation on this question by focussing on the twists and turns and never-to-be moments in the lives of Wish and the young woman who loves him, Mercedes Parsons. What we are witness to is the wreckage of lives half-lived, events that never came to be, the almost-but-not-quite combined with the what-was-to- become. One's only response is to see what can be salvaged from the wreckage afterwards. How does one look back on one's life and accept those diverging paths, memorialized by Robert Frostłthe life that was lived, and the one that was never allowed to bełespecially if one was offered a particular path and took measures, through sheer stubbornness and self-castigation, to evade it?
Wish's Aunt Lilly assures him, "There will come a day when everything that's happened to you will seem purposeful . . . If you keep your heart open to it, the time will come." The key phrase here turns out to be "if you keep your heart open to it." Mercedes has it in her character to do this, against all odds. Ironically, she has a ruthlessness in her that the more hard-nosed Wish, it turns out, does not.
The story centres around the star-crossed love of Wish and Mercedes in the small community of Little Fogo Island in northeastern Newfoundland during the Second World War. Wish travels among the outport villages showing Hollywood movies to the locals, and encounters the sixteen-year-old Mercedes on one of these stints. The job introduces Wish to the harsh reality of straight-out bigotry. Wish, who is Catholic, is rejected by Mercedes's family, and after he recklessly and drunkenly kneels down to say the rosary at her father's wake, he is all but run out of town. Mercedes, not to be held back, follows him to St. John's, only to arrive too late; Wish has shipped off with a British regiment to England. Mercedes learns through letters that Wish's unit has been routed to the South Pacific, and after he lands himself in a POW camp in Japan, all correspondence between them ceases. Had Mercedes been the one interned in the camp, she might have been able to look back on the suffering and follow Aunt Lilly's advice, not out of religious conviction but out of sheer will. While Mercedes, too, is plagued by the ambiguity of life's trajectory, she will be damned if she'll let it stop her from plowing on. Wish, however, is less sanguine. Stationed at a camp a few miles outside Nagasaki, he witnesses the bombing of the city at the end of the war and is sent to help clean up the dead. Crummey does not shy away from the horrors of the scene, nor from Wish's mixed response to it. There are clear echoes of Joy Kogawa's Obasan here, but also distinct differences. Moral positions are never easy in Crummey's fictions. Wish's lack of empathy for the Nagasaki victims somehow convinces him that he is personally responsible for their fate, and this in turn affects his assessment of his entire past. As time ticks on, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to make sense of the wreckage he has been witness and party to.
I am reluctant to reveal the wonderful plot-twists that Crummey sets up in the book. Suffice it to say that Wish is prey to self-delusion on a number of scores. The epigraph to the novel cites the words of General Yamoshito in response to the arrival of American troops in Manila: "the enemy is in our bosom." The same might be said for Wish, who convinces himself that he is an evil man and uses this as a pretense to forego Mercedes's love. Crummey is particularly good when describing such instances of self-delusion, those moments of assumed nonchalance, casual insincerity, or performed confession which mask a deeper hurt and the false vulnerability "that was meant to disguise real damage." By the end of the novel, we are left unsure of the truth of Wish and Mercedes's love affair. Wish maintains at the end that his love was impure, but this would appear to be a lie, conjured in an attempt to refuse responsibility for standing up to the vicissitudes of fate.
Crummey is masterful when it comes to withholding details that invite one to reassess characters as information is unfolded. In his previous novel, River Thieves, a key revelation hinges on a phrase that one of the characters keeps repeating in his mind: "daughter or wife". In this novel, a similar phrase, spoken by Mercedes, haunts Wish with a memory he has tried to repress: "Don't make a whore of me". While the novel is in part about atonement, and Mercedes's name means "mercy", it is never easy to say when atonement is simply a matter of evasion and self-delusion; this is something Wish struggles with as he assesses his relationship with Mercedes, and his behaviour during the war.
Complicating the narrativełand certainly complicating our response to itłis the portrayal of the vicious prison guard, Noburo Nishino, who has a personal vendetta against the Canadians in the camp. While Wish is technically not Canadian (since Newfoundland did not join Confederation until 1949), he befriends the two Canadians and, through pure bravado, suffers their torment. If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that Nishino's vengeful attacks on the Canadians are not sufficiently justified. Nishino was raised in Vancouver and experienced racial prejudice well before the outbreak of war, but the episodes we're privy to do not seem to justify the sheer hatred and sadism that infuse his behaviour in the camp. It is true that his father is terrorized for having an affair with a white woman, and there is a certain symmetry between Nishino's enlistment in the Japanese army and his father's service with the Canadian forces during World War One. The irony is compounded when Nishino repeatedly insists that he is Japanese, not Canadian, a reversal of the plight of Japanese-Canadians in Canada during the Second World War. Stories of the horrors of Japanese POW camps are well known, but if we are not to condemn Nishino outright as a violent sadist, "the Jap to beat all Japs", we need some way of understanding how he succumbed to such extreme moral degradation. Crummey is treading turbulent waters here, different from his treatment of the extermination of the Beothuk in River Thieves, but perhaps equally prone to accusations of racial stereotyping. This is unfortunate because his examination of human vengefulness and vulnerability is so compelling.
Nevertheless, the novel condemns such instances of intolerance and bigotry, from the Catholic-Protestant rivalries in Newfoundland, to the racist attacks on Blacks in the American South, to the xenophobia at the basis of the war itself. It lays before us a series of wreckages: bombed-out Nagasaki; the abandoned Newfoundland outports following the war; the damaged and mutated lives of Nishino, Wish, Mercedes, and Lilly. Ultimately Wish has to accept responsibility for his inability to gather up the emotional wreckage life threw in his path, and his failure to catch hold of a life-buoy when it was offered.
Wish, we're told, had "nailed himself to the cross of that denial long ago and had been faithful to it all his life," which suggests that he has been lying to himself for quite some time. Mercedes, in trying to make sense of it all, comes to the disturbing realization that "there were things you could learn about a person that meant you understood them less." This is true of Crummey's treatment of his characters here. If there is no guaranteed sure thing in life, neither is there utter indifference in the workings of human destiny. I am reminded of the insistent refrain of Jimi Hendrix's "Wild Thing"ł"I wanna know for sure"ła desperate call in the face of anguished uncertainty. The Wreckage delineates the surge of such emotional and philosophical contingencies masterfully, and does so with gut-wrenching clarity. Crummey is surely one of the best fiction writers in Canada today, and he conjures the inexorability and delicacy of human love as few others can. "It's a good life if you don't weaken," one of the characters in the novel states. One only wishes it were that easy.

Cynthia Sugars teaches Canadian literature at the University of Ottawa.

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