By Matt Lennox
From George Orwell to Ian McEwan and, most recently, Alain de Botton there is a tradition of taking novelists to task for failing to represent the world of daily toil. “If you look for the working classes in fiction,” Orwell wrote in 1939, “all you find is a hole.” This turning away from documentary or social realism for the escapist pastures of postmodern “magic” realism or historical romance, something which has become even more pronounced in our own time, has both a gender and a class dimension to it. What has gone missing from the literature of “work” is traditional man’s work: the sort of hard physical labour of “real” jobs involving skilled trades or heavy industry. Thus conceived, Work Lit is Guy Lit, the other side of Chick Lit (whose protagonists do have jobs, though they don’t always take them very seriously). Work Lit is also Prole Lit, as manual labour is understood to be undesirable employment: demanding, dangerous, degrading, and poorly paid. The underclass stuck in this grind usually don’t have much in the way of education, and are often associated with criminality.
If we look at the decline in social realist novels as a historic phenomenon it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Reports of the gradual extinction of traditional, male, blue-collar lifeways have not been exaggerated, and so it’s only natural to find this world less represented in our fiction. Where we are most likely to find it today is in the work of East Coast authors like David Adams Richards and Kenneth J. Harvey, who cast their heroic working-class heroes as quasi-mythic figures of a vanishing past.
This paradoxically grounded otherworldliness — another time, another place — carries over into Matt Lennox’s debut novel The Carpenter, which takes place in 1980 and is set in a small town in northern Ontario where even the better-off families only make annual trips to “the city” (that would be Toronto). The main character is Leland (Lee) King, who has returned to town to help take care of his dying mother after a long stint in prison (where he picked up the trade of carpenter). The nature of his crime is left unexplained for too long (it’s a typical mistake for first novels to guard their narrative secrets like this) but is finally revealed to be both violent and honourable. He is a true Man of Blood: “tough and hard, yet, at the same time, oddly soft-spoken.” That mix of hard and soft is even characteristic of his trade. Carpentry, which is also a craft and even an art, is the skill of choice for most such figures. All of Brad Smith’s blue-jeaned heroes, for example, seem to be good at it. Plumbing, on the other hand, is a profession we hear less about in novels.
But while Lee is the main character, The Carpenter is really about an entire community, and the kinds of close family, work, and employment connections that characterize small town life, where everybody knows your name (and that’s not always a good thing). There are a number of convincing sketches of townies, but the other important members of the cast are Lee’s nephew Pete and a retired cop and ex-boxer named Stan. As you might expect, it’s very much a man’s world informed by a code of masculine values (of the kind evoked in Lennox’s short story collection Men of Salt, Men of Earth), with the women we meet tending to be practical-minded and understanding types who are ultimately hard for the guys to relate to.
Lennox recreates this small world fully, from the clothes people wear to the cars they drive, the churches they attend, and the character and layout of their homes. That it is a small world is the novel’s theme, worked out in a number of complementary ways. Its smallness forces characters together in combustible combinations, feeds Pete’s desire to escape and head out west, and finally becomes a tightening noose of fate.
Fate is a common idea in most novels about the working class and the over-determined lives of the poor. Characters typically feel trapped and unable to make better lives for themselves due to tough economic times or abiding character flaws. Lee suffers from both, struggling against alcoholism and a penchant for violence as well as his criminal record and dismal employment opportunities. Money isn’t just an oil to make life easier, but an essential, gnawing consideration that forces him to count not just coins but cigarettes. Without a vehicle of his own he is always having to get a ride from someone, symbolic of the way poverty takes over the direction of his life. Lennox shows expert technique in making such mundane material details stand in for and reveal states of mind, the focus of attention they indirectly indicate being more expressive of thoughts and feelings than what the characters themselves are able to articulate.
In Lee’s world, fate is the dark side of fortune. Factors from the naturalist equation of environment and heredity are personified as a hunter: “You know how even if you have your affairs under control, there’s something else at work, something that’s aware of you. And it waits, until just the right time, and it steps out of the dark, just long enough to take shape and act and then disappear again.” There is no room for coincidence in anything that happens, but just a growing sense that things are happening “as though they were always meant to happen this way.”
When people start to think of their lives in these terms we can be sure nothing good is going to happen to them. The fate that steps out of the dark is a shadow that no one can escape, and is memorably evoked in the novel’s splendid final image.
Getting there is a curious trip. As a piece of carpentry, it’s a well-built affair that could have used a bit of sanding. Lennox has deliberately constructed an odd plot that seems to take delight in loose ends and the introduction of elements that are mainly included for background effect. The writing, which is understated, can also be wordy, with expository dialogue that comes off as clunky at times, and some very conventional posing by the characters. Lennox writes well, however, when describing people doing things, especially when they are under pressure. A boat caught in a storm is an example of when he’s at his best here, and the action-filled finale is tightly drawn and moves quickly to its fated but still surprising climax. As an example of working class fiction this is a book that represents the genre well, providing an honest sketch, in shadows, of a little town.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2012.