By Kenneth J. Harvey
When Henry James described some nineteenth-century novels as “large loose baggy monsters” for their informal overabundance of life, he wasn’t being entirely disparaging. The charm of some big books, including some very great ones, lies in their shagginess. An attribute possessed in spades by Kenneth J. Harvey’s large loose and baggy epic of Newfoundland working-class life Blackstrap Hawco.
Harvey’s opening paragraph introduces the distinctive Down East tone, one that readers of Alistair Macleod and David Adams Richards, not to mention many lesser lights, will be familiar with. Jacob Hawco is retrieving a rabbit from a wire trap. Attention is given to practical details such as Jacob leaving his mitts on so his sweaty hands won’t stick to the snare wire. Then we learn that this is a trap prohibited “by people who knew nothing of living off the land, of survival through one’s own efforts.” Bloody toffs!
This is the working man as rebel and cultural hero, a figure that Blackstrap Hawco, Jacob’s son, perfectly embodies. Sullen and independent. Contemptuous of outsiders (a category not limited to mainlanders, since he can’t abide townies from St. John’s either). Mistrustful of the media, or indeed anyone with a camera. Illiterate and resentful of university fellers with their brains “all muddled up from being stuffed full ‘a too much heducation.” Strong and silent, hard-drinking and violent. With dirt under his fingernails and muscles and packages of cigarettes bulging beneath his t-shirt.
“Said to be about a Newfoundland family,” Blackstrap Hawco is a historical novel that tosses scraps of fact and fiction from various sources into what Harvey calls a “transcomposite narrative.” The book consists of two main parts followed by a set of epilogues. The first part skips about historically and stylistically, telling the story of the Hawco family from its muddled mythological bloodlines in the nineteenth century up to 1992. Harvey experiments here with different voices ranging from lyrical stream-of-consciousness passages to cutting loose with what has become his signature fragmented grammar (Sentences. That. Read like. This. even when, he doesn’t use, capitals, or periods, only commas). The second part offers a steadier, chronological account of Blackstrap’s life up to the present day (and beyond), re-visiting many of the same characters and events and filling in some of the blanks.
It’s an original approach and one that largely works, setting up interesting echoes and correspondences that make the story seem as though it is taking itself apart and putting itself back together again even while you read it. And it allows Harvey to move quickly among a number of set-piece scenes involving the kind of raw physical action he does best, pitting men against the elements. The climax of the first part in particular, with the crew of a small boat setting off in a storm to salvage barrels of port from the wreck of a Portuguese ship, bears comparison to Faulkner’s famous account of the family crossing the river in As I Lay Dying.
There is, in fact, a lot of Faulkner’s Mississippi in Harvey’s introverted outport world. The same defensive pride in an economically depressed region. The same emphasis on family, native rituals of violence and local codes of honour. The same fascination with the perverse and grotesque. The same moral value placed on suffering and endurance.
Blackstrap himself is a larger-than-life character who represents a core duality: the Newfoundlander who is both victim and avenger (not unlike Myrden, hero of Harvey’s previous novel Inside, though on a larger scale). Indeed by the time we get to the end he seems to have turned into an archetypal folk hero, his story the story of his people, bearing scars and injuries that represent all of their lives filled with hard luck and struggle (among other things he is the sole survivor of the Ocean Ranger disaster). But this is also part of the novel’s design. Blackstrap comes out of a world of folktale and myth only to be re-absorbed back into a sea of stories, becoming the narrative ghost of Newfoundland.
Review first published in the Toronto Star September 7, 2008.