The Lost Highway

By David Adams Richards

The novels of David Adams Richards inhabit one of the most distinctive fictional environments in all of Canadian literature, a place as real and meaningful as storied Munro Country or Richler’s Montreal. His moral fables set along “our river,” involving recurring character types trapped by fate and the workings of inescapable spiritual forces, recreate Hardy’s achievement in finding quite enough human nature within a circumscribed scene for any literary purpose, creating “beings in whose hearts and minds that which is apparently local should be really universal.”

But we have been down this highway of Miramichi melodrama before.

The story here deals with a pair of losers, “one intellectual, one physical,” whose simple plan to steal a winning 6/49 ticket comes violently undone through the usual fateful confluence of life’s whopping ironies.

Alex Chapman is the (relatively) privileged, intellectual loser, and all you really have to know about him is that he is a lapsed Catholic who has a part-time job teaching at the university. Any association with the halls of higher learning is the mark of Cain in a Richards novel, and Alex proves to be no exception. Being an academic, he is, of course, “ineffectual and cowardly”: a smug, sanctimonious hypocrite who is good for absolutely nothing. (“All those books, what good had they ever done – he may as well have eaten them, rather than have read them.”) Not only can he not hunt, but he is frightened of guns and unable to cast a fishing line. And though he teaches a course in ethics, his own moral system is revealed by events to be nothing more than practical casuistry.

But he does play the part to the hilt – even wearing summer sandals and a corduroy jacket while supporting various modern, liberal, secular causes. Just remember that you have to spit when you read adjectives like these in Richards, as they all carry the same connotations as the much-despised and relentlessly denigrated tag of “intellectual.”

Alex’s “physical” alter ego is Leo Bourque, a bully with arms as strong as iron bars and a “thick mustache and thicker neck” (if you can imagine). He even strokes that moustache at one point, and throws a cup of water at a candle lit by a little girl in honour of the Virgin. He is not a nice man at all.

The candle will not go out, but magically continues to burn throughout the book, even in the rain. That is because it is a Symbol of the little girl’s idea of life being “an inextinguishable lamp of joy,” as well as a way of letting us know “that nothing is really dependent on man.”

This is not a point that is made with any subtlety, but then Richards has never been disposed toward subtle effects. His use of language has the domestic grace of wood stain slapped on a deck. Alex is described at one point as “looking in at those old yellow curtains hanging across blank, dirty windows in the small, cold house.” The next sentence goes on to describe this “sad little house” with its “old and vagrant furniture” and wine bottles stacked on the “small, cold porch.” That’s two olds, two colds, two smalls and one little in two sentences, with the only interesting adjective being the excellent “vagrant.”

And even this pales in comparison with such authentic hick redundancies as the “small little apartment” we visit later. Of his bizarre similes, such as a construction business that “sat moribund like a wounded bull moose in a bog” and the description of Alex and Leo “frozen together in a dimension neither had predicted nor wanted . . . like the two combatants in Star Trek placed in mortal combat for eternity,” the less said the better. At the very least editors are supposed to prevent authors from embarrassing themselves like this.

There’s no denying Richards’ uncanny gift for working the levers of squalor and the pathetic, or his power as a storyteller. The problem here is that he isn’t really interested in his story. He is only interested in hammering home moral and spiritual truths that modern, secular, liberal man has fallen away from. For this purpose Alex is nothing but a whipping boy, and the hand that holds the lash never tires.

We know Richards didn’t enjoy university very much. But hasn’t he had time to get over it? And is everyone who believes in women’s or native rights, or supports – God help us! – the New Democratic Party nothing but, at best, a scheming, posturing hypocrite? We are left to ponder questions like these as our attention wanders through the obsessive, repetitive mockery of pitiful intellectuals, and endless lectures about how God, Jesus, Moses and the Virgin have been “trampled underfoot by the somewhat smug and pedestrian certainty of modern man.”

Well, better that than the smug and pedestrian certainty of some novelists. What happened to turn Richards into such a crank? When did our Hardy become our Solzhenitsyn?

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 25, 2007.

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