The Divine Ryans

by Wayne Johnston
240 pages,
ISBN: 077104447X

Roses Are Difficult Here

by W.O. Mitchell
328 pages,
ISBN: 0771060777

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Family News
by H. R. Percy

THAT W. O. MITCHELL`S story of smalltown life at the western extremity of the prairies won me over in the end -- as I hope it will win others -- is as much a tribute to my staying power as to the power of the book itself It is a painfully slow starter. The first part of the book lacks the dramatic tension that keeps a reader turning the pages while characters are introduced, narrative lines developed, landscapes painted. Coming upon the phrase "Small-town life could go stale in time," I could not resist the marginal comment "Could it ever." Dr. June Melquist`s visit to Shelby to conduct a sociological survey is the artful peg on which this portrait of the town and its people hangs. The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Matt Stanley, editor of the local weekly, who helps Dr. Melquist penetrate the shell of the citizens` reserve. As a result, Stanley is one of the few characters -in the numerous cast to be fully and satisfactorily developed. Perhaps inevitably, the very breadth of scope results in a sacrifice of depth: one sees only far enough into the hearts and minds of those involved, including Stanley`s wife, Ruth, to justify their behaviour. Some are predictable small-town stereotypes. Among the most skilfully and compassionately drawn are the bibulous garbage collector, Rory Napoleon, and his long-suffering wife, Marne. But if the story is slow to build, one is treated along the way to set pieces of local lore, folksy anecdotes, rich evocations of prairie and foothills terrain, lifestyles and Climate, all handled with the well-known Mitchell mastery of burnout, virtuosity, and satirical insight. Anyone who has attended a public reading by W. O. Mitchell can pick out passages apparently written with such histrionic performances in mind; can hear the arch tone and see the roguish twinkle. There is, for example, embedded in the novel, a hilarious, anthology-destined short story about Santa Clauss visit to Shelby. These cameos bring one`s interest to heel when it has strayed as a result of dollops of superfluous information, arrant padding, and false suspense, as when we are put through three paragraphs of Canon Midford`s irrelevant musings before he opens his poison-pen letter. There are also tedious lists and catalogues of past speakers at the Rotary and dignitaries attending the local rodeo. After one such list is the comment, apparently devoid of ironic intent, "If only Harry, this year`s President ... had enough sense to cut business to a minimum." Dr. Melquist wins the confidence of the town and of the reader, but she remains a shadowy figure throughout. Although introverted, as a result of her upbringing, she appears -- from the little one learns of her -- to be a person of considerable charm, probity, and compassion, as well as a shrewd interrogator. When the published results of her survey expose her as anything but, our first feeling is that the author has cheated. But the townspeople have been hoodwinked, too, and we somewhat grudgingly concede that the deception is a legitimate device to ensure that we share the community`s sense of betrayal. Wayne Johnston`s The Divine Ryans is also a slow starter, yet paradoxically the leisurely, largely uneventful opening chapters are the best and most memorable part of the book. They are delightfully and inconsequentially funny, rich in a humour depending not on comic events but on a comic view of life and of people. The book owes much of its strength to narrator Draper Ryan, a nine-year-old who sees himself as a born loser, and whom everyone annoys by giving him his full name, Draper Doyle Ryan. The comic view of life is largely that of Uncle Reginald, the tone heretic in a family with a preponderance of priests and nuns (whence the family`s nickname in the community and the book`s title). As in Roses are Difficult Here, a family-owned newspaper figures prominently, but the Ryans also own a funeral business. Both these old, established enterprises are the occasion of much satirical comment from Uncle Reginald, who drives the hearse in grand style but declines all other undertaking duties. To outward appearances the boss, he calls himself "the power behind the crone," the crone being his sister, Philomena, who inherited their father`s estate and wields with relish the power it confers. Aker Draper Doyle`s father, the editor of the paper, dies, "Aunt Phil" sells the company-owned house in which his family lives in order to keep the paper afloat. She decrees that the widow and her two children move in with her and Uncle Reginald. This brings them completely under her domination, and under the influence of her siblings, Father Seymour and Sister Louise. Tension in the house is high, and is heightened when Draper Doyle confesses to having "visitations" from his dead father, of whom the family had always been at great pains to project an exemplary if somewhat eccentric image, but who is gradually revealed to have been a potentially very embarrassing black sheep. Because of these apparitions, Draper Doyle is coerced into joining Father Seymour`s Number, a large band of boys whom the priest trains to box and to sing and dance in public. At all these things Draper Doyle is hopelessly inept. He would much prefer hockey, in which he has an obsessive interest but at which he is equally inept. Under the stress of injuries to his face (and his pride) during his only public boxing match, he suffers increasingly from frightful dreams and a related bed-wetting affliction that further humiliates him. In both his visitations and his dreams, hockey pucks are highly symbolic. His father`s ghost is always carrying one. Most of this is related with a determined attempt to sustain the humorous tone, but under the accumulation of sometimes harrowing events the humour inevitably flags a little. The dreams tend to be described in excessive detail, as do the televised hockey games that the whole family watches but only Draper Doyle really understands. Draper Doyle puts together his own discoveries and Uncle Reginald`s revelations to find out the truth about his father`s shameful propensities, and uses them to help his family escape the tyranny of Aunt Phil and the other Divine Ryans, and so a happy ending, or at least a less troubled future, is implicit. Characterization is strong, and is enriched throughout by the humorous viewpoint. Uncle Reginald, the least divine of the Ryans, steals the show and is likely to linger in the memory -and, one hopes, on the bookstore shelves for a long time.

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