By Kenneth J. Harvey
“Naturalism” is one of the few -isms in literature with a concrete sense of what it’s all about. Realistic in technique, the naturalistic novel tends to focus on a certain social element – the working poor or unemployed – while weaving sensational plots – usually involving some kind of crime – that illustrate a “scientific” thesis about the controlling power of environment and heredity on its doomed protagonists. It’s a fictional formula, but one that doesn’t have to be formulaic or limiting, as this terrific new novel by Newfoundland author Kenneth J. Harvey demonstrates.
The story begins with Myrden being released from the prison where he has been, apparently wrongfully, committed for the past 14 years. When he returns home – which is a run-down neighbourhood in St. John’s – he finds that nothing has changed. He can even lose the press hounds on his heels by cutting through backyards and alleys that are, remarkably, still the same. But then one of the central assumptions of naturalism is that things don’t change. We are trapped – by our genetic code as much as cycles of violence and poverty. Myrden’s father killed his mother, and his own sons are frequently in-and-out of jail. Heredity is fate. In one of the very few false notes in the book’s dialogue, a reporter asks Myrden on his release if he is concerned that his children will follow in his footsteps. It’s a false note because one can’t imagine a reporter asking such a stupid question, but it is thematically correct. Family is like that. The villains in the novel are all members of another family of barely-employed degenerates, while the good woman, Ruth, isn’t part of the neighbourhood at all but “from money.” Which tells you everything you need to know.
Being “inside” is shorthand for prison, but since the naturalist views all of life as a kind of prison it has other meanings as well. In the first place it means inside a particular environment, and if nothing else this book reminds us that nobody does poverty and squalor like Canada’s own East Coast writers. The bottles of beer for breakfast, the cheaply-built row houses, the domestic violence, the dirty, foul-mouthed children, the lines at the welfare office, the smiles empty of teeth, the animal-like lives reduced to angry or submissive desperation. Myrden’s people have “faces that had been through everything.” They are “heart-mangled. Not just for the moment or the week or the month. It was their family legacy. To exist in these places.” Forever inside.
“Inside” is also inside Myrden’s head. This is a prison too, since Myrden isn’t much of a guy for talking and typically expresses himself through muscular action. The only time he communicates any feeling other than rage and frustration is when he plays the piano, and he only does that once, unconsciously. The writing is the perfect vehicle for his plodding, inarticulate thoughts. Sentences break down into stuttering fragments. Moving forward. Just a bit. At a time. It is language confined to baby-steps, which is all that Myrden is comfortable with.
When he is first released from prison the wide open spaces almost make him sick. “There was wind out here. No walls for it to run up against. . . . The landscape beyond the crowd stretched away. Further and further. Such endless height and distance. Dizziness in his head and stomach.” He is uncomfortable with this “space shooting off in all directions” because it represents freedom, which is a concept he can’t recognize. In much the same way the big government payout he receives is only something he wants to give away or otherwise get rid of. Money is freedom, and freedom is another world. This final point is driven home when he uses part of the money to buy a vacation to Spain with Ruth. False dreams of escape! He doesn’t belong in Spain, and doesn’t belong with Ruth. He belongs inside.
That the novel’s finale is so predictable isn’t necessarily a weakness. A book so concerned with inevitability and fate could hardly end any other way and still be true to itself. Its beginning is its end, and more than most novels it demands to be taken as a whole. By any measure it places Harvey’s name among the top rank of this country’s writers.
Review first published online July 19, 2006.