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Zeal, Doom, and the Few
by Keith Nickson

There's been some talk of late of that enticing kind called gossip, about a Canadian writer known for-well-over-writing of a delicious kind, and for poetic prose pitched to the same universe-busting intensity as Christopher Marlowe, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy; and whose flights of surrealism take in scalping, gambling, forest fires, fisticuffs, and other forms of recreation for boys at the end-of-the-world. As a true and humble gossip, I speak of the Montreal novelist Trevor Ferguson.
The word goes: He's unknown but, you know, he's Canada's best novelist. Until last summer, I would have responded with a superior shrug, and later, very privately, asked my wife in a subdued bed-time voice, "Ever heard of some guy called Trevor Ferguson?"
I discovered him in the summer of 1995 when the Toronto Star sent me his last novel to review, The Fire Line. Now, after digesting The Fire Line and his newest, The Timekeeper, I must make one small change to the rumours. I apologize for the sweeping, crush-all-naysayers swagger: Ferguson is Canada's best unknown novelist. Let me explain.
Over nearly twenty years, he has turned out six novels, won almost no prizes, and is little-known even to devotees of Canadian literature. A bookseller friend tells me that The True Life Adventures of Sparrow Drinkwater, from 1993, got a big push from the publisher and still went ker-thunk into the remainder piles. Sparrow was the last novel in a trilogy that began with Onyx John (1985) and The Kinkajou (1989).
Of late, Ferguson's imagination has been fired by the moral dilemmas of men living in the wilderness, doing manly things, like working on the railroad. The Fire Line is set among railway workers who have fled civilized places in Europe and flourish in the lawless hinterlands of British Columbia. In The Timekeeper, Ferguson pushes the same setting into the even more remote regions of the Northwest Territories, where "the taiga of muskeg and bog and stunted woods" is relentlessly unforgiving. His characters, even the most brutalized, yearn for a redemption of a decidedly mystical sort.
The novel opens with the sixteen-year-old Martin Bishop catching a ride up to the region around Great Slave Lake, where a railroad is being built to service a lead-zinc mine. He joins a crew of wild rail workers hauled out of "loonybins and.drunktanks." Bishop is an orphan and an innocent. His mother has disappeared and his father has recently died. The bank has taken away the family farm in northern Alberta. He is uncertain about right and wrong; Ferguson lets us know early on that the novel will be a test of Bishop's moral stamina:
"It's hard to know exactly what's right, the boy lamented. Beyond the sphere of the headlights was blackness yet and that was the realm that he studied.. My dad taught me right from wrong. Tried to anyhow. He wanted to be assured I knew the difference.. Right from wrong. The good and the bad in every act and deed and way of thinking." Bishop is hired as the camp's timekeeper and goes about his task of tracking work hours with zeal. Too much zeal, it turns out, for the camp boss, Fisk, who is fiddling the books. Bishop's struggle to act righteously while working for Fisk takes up the first half of the novel. Prud'homme is the cook, a depraved madman who considers his true calling to be an "oracle of doom". From the start, he is Bishop's nemesis and predicts that the boy will be corrupted. For a bereaved, callow youngster working in a savage place, Bishop tests our patience somewhat when he is so willing to challenge Fisk's brutal authority. In the style of a morality play, Prud'homme and Fisk are engaged in a struggle for Bishop's soul. In rich, Old-Testament-like declamations that are a hallmark of Ferguson's style, Prud'homme declares:
"That's the beauty of being an oracle of doom, son. There is no speck of me that remains to be corrupted for I have seen it all..You are here to be destroyed.. We will destroy you or you will destroy yourself. Once we were all young like you and full of our promise and ambition and we were destroyed every one of us.. It is our obligation. It is our religion."
Bishop discovers that Fisk is exiling workers into the surrounding bush and keeping them on the payroll in order to steal their money. This group of vagabonds is known as "the wilder few". The second half of the novel begins when Bishop is caught supplying "the wilder few" with food and is tossed into the wilderness himself. After sabotaging the rail line and stealing food from the camp, he and the few are pursued by Fisk down the Buffalo River to the shores of Great Slave Lake. Here, a fisherman carries the survivors to the outpost town of Hay River-where Fisk is waiting. Bishop is buoyed throughout by his obsession with the novel's only female character, Nicole Grainger. In The Timekeeper, women-in the form of Nicole and Bishop's dead mother-exist only in the margins of the narrative. Nicole serves as a romantic icon of beauty and truth who just might offer Bishop a chance to be redeemed.
A summary makes the story sound like a simple country church, but Ferguson has built a novel of baroque, cathedral-like grandeur-amply stained with blood. Bishop witnesses Scully, one of the wilder few, shoot the face off a fellow outcast, Jeeter. He sees Fisk shoot a grizzly bear. He is forced to kill Fisk's dog, King, after it is mauled by wolves. But he doesn't succumb to the general depravity. Again and again, he gives the dead, animal or human, a decent burial, to "cleanse himself and to make his own peace." To his mind, a proper grave grants the dead a measure of immortality, since "his father was alive within him and he had buried him properly..Even that proud grizzly was alive within him." In its prose style, in Bishop's insistence on proper burials, and even in his own battered endurance, The Timekeeper echoes Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
As always with Ferguson, the story line is engaging but the language is the star performer. It is so rich, uniquely cadenced and often beautiful, that it rides right over unlikely plot twists and thin characterizations. The characters talk alike and sometimes they ramble in the same poetic style as the narrator. Ferguson's language overwhelms the characters but we don't care because we are entranced by it. At times, he overdoes the Christian images and yet the language never loses power:
"Jeeter carried the matches and he had but a few and he struck one and cupped that frail glow and the wilder few watched with apprehension as though the very act of observation was itself a form of prayer and the men waited hushed to discern if a flame might arise. The fire developed slowly and on his knees the hoodlum blew gently upon the filaments of flame as a man penitent and abject before his Maker."
Overall, the language plays at a lower pitch here than in The Fire Line. There, Ferguson was paying tribute to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, where scalpings are rendered in surreal poetry. Here, the tone is darker and the brutish incidents less frequent but more realistically drawn. The grand and heady allusions to the rim of the universe that marked The Fire Line are replaced by ruminations on "time". Bishop is almost a child, but he embodies a stubborn Christian morality common in earlier times. As the story begins, one character says to him, "What are you, from another century?" It turns out that Bishop's father didn't use tractors on the farm: he had learned the old way to plough, using a team of horses. Ferguson laces the narrative with references to eternity and doesn't allow the reader to fix the story firmly in time, although it appear to be happening after the Second World War. The cumulative effect is of a timeless morality play, where Bishop, a battered and fatigued saviour figure, just manages to triumph over the vices of Fisk and Prud'homme.
A little schematic at times, The Timekeeper's dark story only confirms the generous gossip about Ferguson and makes me want to spread a little more of it. Trevor Ferguson is rather like a modern-day Christopher Marlowe, writing marvellous morality narratives for the end of the millennium.

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