Richards, David Adams: Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul

Courtesy of Doubleday Canada

Richards, David Adams
Incidents In the Life of Markus Paul
Doubleday Canada, 2011
Hardcover, 291 pages

Review by: Kerry Riley

When approaching a work by eminent Canadian author David Adams Richards, it is best to be forewarned:  he is not interested in making you feel nice about life.   Long, appreciative acquaintance with his work has, however, left me believing that he does want the reader to explore with him the infinite complexity of human nature, individual integrity and moral conflict, the hobbles of class, and the fact that, while the truth itself may be simple, our perception and manipulation of it never is. Oh yes — and sin.  He’d like you to consider the nature of sin. This acquaintance also lets me declare, quite confidently, that Richards is a wise, generous, gently funny and astute storyteller, and far from the gloom and despair for which his work is often criticized, one can reliably find joy and celebration within a Richards story. Perhaps not in the usual places, or the short term, but all the more glorious for having acknowledged the abyss.

The  story takes place on familiar ground for Richards’ readers — the Miramichi region of New Brunswick, in this case, on a small First Nations reserve.  Markus Paul is a middle-aged Micmac RCMP officer still trying to discover the truth about an incident which occurred on the reserve when he was a fifteen years old and which has haunted and shaped his entire adult life.  His grandfather, Amos Paul, was chief of the reserve when the death of a young Micmac boy named Hector Penniac, and its fallout, shattered his community.  Beyond the tragedy inherent in the loss of young life,

from the first, this death was special.  It would in fact over this summer become an event that would encapsulate under- currents that had been troubling the reserve for over thirty years: land reform rights, logging and fishing rights, and activism from the left in the guise of university pronouncements and paper editorials.

Within and beyond the reserve, Hector’s death would force those whose lives it touched to make destiny-shaping choices about their allegiance to the truth.

Hector Penniac was a delicate, fine-boned boy, studious and thoughtful, with dreams of becoming a doctor, and not, at first glance, well suited for physical labour.   He was, nevertheless, delighted to get a chance to make some money working the hold of the  Lutheran, a Dutch ship being loaded with pulp logs at the wharf in nearby Millbank. Arriving “shiny and new” in his recently acquired work clothes, pockets full of small gifts of cigarettes and gum for his new work companions, he was, within a few short hours, lying dead beneath a load of pulp logs. By happenstance, Roger Savage, a young white labourer, was also on the docks that morning.   In fact, he had arrived late, and it was Hector who had taken Roger’s place in the hold of the Lutheran. By further happenstance Roger, who had decided to wait around to see if, as was often the case, further places would be awarded later in the day, was available when George Morrissey, taking an unauthorized break, asked him to hook a load of pulp logs in his absence.  The load that Roger hooked was the load that supposedly killed Hector. Two white union workers, the Monk brothers,  the water boy Brice Peel, and his father Angus, had also been in the hold at the time of the accident, but had all escaped injury.

As in all small communities, the story spreads quickly and within a very short time begins a  subtle metamorphosis from the simple facts of the death to something darker.  The proximity of a white labourer and a dead Micmac glowed with potential significance.  The urge to connect the two through subterranean tunnels of consciousness hollowed out by decades of conflict, injustice and oppression, proves irresistable, and the facts are subsumed into a larger, more fundamental narrative of bigotry and vengeance. Soon the incident is considered “fishy,” and then criminal, as the theory emerges that Roger, in a fit of racially-motivated spite, deliberately killed Hector by tampering with the hook on the load of logs.  This becomes the perceived wisdom within the band , despite a number of glaring logical impediments, and the fact that the authorities could find no basis for charges. White members of the community have their own reasons for encouraging this interpretation.  Roger’s ill-conceived attempt to protect Morrissey from union sanction by insisting he had not hooked the load and his refusal to recant do not help his case.  Neither do the facts that Roger’s tiny house impinges on reserve land and that he owns rights to coveted salmon pools that the band contests. Only the self-effacing, elderly chief, Amos Paul, and to a varying degree his conflicted grandson Markus, are willing to voice concerns about inconsistencies in the theory of Roger’s guilt, and remain unwilling to assign him his new persona as a brutal, bigoted murderer.

Once Roger’s guilt is unofficially established, the situation becomes political, the authority’s failure to act viewed as yet another example of the indignity and injustice endured by First Nations people in our modern world.  A response is required. Amos’ patient insistence on fairness is viewed as insufficiently dynamic, thus providing Isaac Snow, a younger man, with an opportunity to challenge him for leadership of the band.  In light of the zeitgeist, Isaac has impeccable credentials — his father had been falsely accused by a white judiciary system and unjustly executed.  His pedigree notwithstanding, Isaac is a credible, powerful man of integrity.  However, his sensibilities are political, and he has a vested interest in encouraging the transmutation of grief over Hector’s death to anger directed at the white hegemony. Action is what is required, at the moment, to differentiate himself from Amos but his bid for leadership forces collusion with lesser men, whom, in the end, he cannot control.

One of these men is Joel Ginnish, another individual for whom Hector’s death has presented an opportunity. Essentially excommunicated by the band, and driven off the reserve for his disruptive behaviour, Joel, who was Hector’s half-brother, is allowed to return for the funeral and his presence tolerated out respect for the family’s grief.  Joel and Hector were not close — in fact, Joel hated his step-father, and resented Hector — perceived as a rival for his mother’s affection.  The tragedy, however, has conferred upon him a certain glamour, his step-brother becoming much-loved and dearly-missed in death, and he eagerly dons the cloak of aggrieved, avenging family guardian, mostly in the hopes of winning his mother’s approval, but also because violent action, in any guise, is his favoured arena.

Into this volatile mix arrives Max Doran — Amos’ (and, I suspect, Richards’) worst case scenario — a young, inexperienced, not particularly bright, reporter with a cause — white guilt incarnate determined to do right, and in the process, make his name as a journalist, and without the intellectual capacity to necessarily differentiate the two.  Lacking any intimate practical knowledge of those involved in the controversy, and blinded by his preconceptions, Max is instantly out of his depth and easily manipulated. His articles draw the attention of social arbiters and idealists, even further removed from the facts of the case, and whose approach is, therefore, even more idealogical and ill-informed. By the time he begins to dimly comprehend his mistakes, it seems too late to recant, and, in any case, forces around him will not allow it.  In the end (and against type) Max does find it within himself to act with integrity, and Richards thus makes a distinction between the naivete of an individual and the self-serving cynicism of the business of journalism.

Tensions, manipulated by various interested parties, and fueled by the pressure of national media coverage and the ineptitude of local authorities, inevitably erupt into violence, as  blockades are erected around the reserve and Joel, having split from Isaac, leads a rogue campaign to arrest Roger.  When the dust finally settles, Roger, who had stubbornly stood his ground, insisting that he had done nothing wrong, is dead, as well as Little Joe Barnaby, a child from the reserve hit by a stray bullet.

With Roger dead, the truth of his guilt or innocence loses its urgency, although he is held criminally responsible for Little Joe’s death. Only Amos Paul quietly pursues the answer to the mystery of how Hector died and the question of Roger’s guilt or innocence. His patient work uncovers an increasing number of inconsistencies in the theory that Hector was killed (accidently or not) by the pulp load, but he is unable to prove exactly what happened.  This legacy is left to his grandson Markus, who twenty years later, finally makes a critical connection and solves the case.  In doing so, he does indeed expose prejudice, bigotry and stupid violence, but in an overlooked source.

In one of life’s small synchronicities, I was, while organizing my thoughts about Richard’s writing, also reading Sue Prideaux’s new biography of August Strindberg, Strindberg: A Life (1).Strindberg, it seems, strove to conduct detailed “vivisections” of human behaviour, by which he meant detailed scrutiny and dissection of the often invisible psychological undercurrents that governed human actions. As Prideaux notes,

The shifting points of entry into such investigations were often small; they might merely involve recognising a sub-threshold impulse common to all [….] Such synaptic connections are the language of the common unspoken and as such pretty banal and commonly ignored, but it was Strindberg’s great genius as a writer committed to exploring the whole truth of every layer of consciousness that he would explore the leap across the synaptic gap [….] It was all part of his compilation of a mental dictionary of common, non-rational impulses running beneath the visible tip of the iceberg of human behaviour…
(p 96)

It struck me that this was an equally apt comment on Richard’s work, and, in particular, this, his latest novel.  In his story, a charming young man loses his life tragically.  The truth is there for anyone with patience and good will to discover and yet the community chooses to constuct and defend a false truth, a false truth which outsiders with no perspective on the situation are only to happy to perpetuate. As a result, two more innocent lives are lost, and a multitude of others warped.  Although Richards’ rendering of the details of the case are precise and the story functions as a credible mystery, his real focus is the why.  Why, why, why? Why, in a fiction that any thoughtful reader will recognize as extraordinarily true to life, did otherwise good people stifle misgivings and support a false narrative?  What minute fluctuations in need and desire governed each assault on truth?  Why was Hector, who, as it turns out, was suspected of being gay, and therefore often persecuted and shunned by his community, posthumously resurrected as the reserve’s adored poster boy for hope and progress?  What, in short, constituted the “common unspoken” of the case?  Some characters, like the Monks, had straightforward, self-serving reasons to encourage the triumph of the lie, and one, Amos, steadfastly resisted its allure but it is within the shifting allegiances of the “average” person that the fascination lies.

Although the entire book is an extended scrutiny of the “common unspoken,” the following scene provides a good example of the concept in play:

‘But,’ Markus ventured, after arriving at Isaac’s house and seeing all the youngsters sitting about and drinking beer in the yard, calling out to old adversaries as if they all were bonded together forever, ‘my grandad says if he [Roger] did hook on, he would still have to hook on right or the load wouldn’t have lifted and maybe even would have dropped before it got to the boat. Or as it swung over it.’

‘There’s a hundred ways to do it,’ Joel Ginnish said, coming to the door and looking down at the boy as he made the motion of a knot.  And everyone looked at Markus as if he was making things needlessly complicated because he was old Amos’s grandson. (…)

Yet Markus knew that Joel Ginnish was no expert.  He had never worked at anything.  When Markus thought about it, the statement, ‘There’s a hundred ways to do it’ was not true at all.  In fact, others there who had worked a boat or two would know that it wasn’t.  But none were bold enough to contradict the statement.  And what they were saying about Roger Savage was that he was a criminal.  Not just stupid or blundering, but a real criminal who wanted to kill people.

Richards is far too subtle an observer of the human condition to suggest that there is a single or simple answer to the question of why.  The usual modifiers are there, of course — authorities and intellectuals alike are blinded by class distinctions and assumptions, and racism exerts its insidious influence in both directions.  The media’s self-serving instinct to pursue the most reactionary, and the intertwined relationship between media attention and power exerts due influence. Liberal white guilt and class distinctions  combine to make Roger the perfect scapegoat — someone assumed by the white middle class to be still capable of the crimes they now feel their modern, enlightened selves to be safely above. Desperate for redemption, they are only to willing to offer up Roger as evidence of their fair-mindedness.

These impediments of class, culture and race, are not, however, the central problem, for what are cultures, classes and races, but collections of individuals? The full tragedy resided in the fact that, in large and small ways, large and small-spirited people had their allegiance to the truth tested, and with few exceptions, failed the test.  Here, Richards is at his most implacable, exposing stark, and discomfitingly familiar flaws in our natures, although he often softens the message by delivering it through the ramshackle, compassionate saintliness of Amos.  So, why were the voices of fairness and reason not heeded and the second tragedy prevented?

Because

no one wanted to blame Roger in order to get [his] house and [his] pools, but no one was foolish enough not to know that if he was blamed, this house and these pools would be easier to access.

Because

those who were telling people what must have happened could not have their own motives examined, for fear of the questioner being called, if white, prejudiced, and if native, traitors.

Because

 many people, no matter who they were, said they wanted the truth, and then wanted certain answers to fit what their idea of truth was

Because

[although] everyone knew this [that it was extremely unlikely that Roger had tried to kill Hector] (…) nobody said a thing, for to say anything was to say they were using Hector’s memory for their own purpoes, and no one wanted to

Because

 once you betray someone, you hold it against them

Because

the protestors and screaming young warrior poets, in their army jackets (…) wanted Roger to feel the weight of their displeasure while taking pleasure in it as modern and conciliatory whites.

Because

[when Amos cautioned his band to] ‘beware of what you wish for,’ he was speaking to those who were hoping for a death of someone, anyone, really — though no one would say this (…) so they could say they had partaken in something that was dangerous without its being dangerous to themselves.

Because

[the band] wanted justice for crimes of the past. For something they could not get even for. (…) They wanted to live in the past the way they had once been, and could not be again.  And no protest would ever change that.

If Richards’ story offered only this harsh assessment of humanity, it could certainly be accused of excessive gloom and despair, and one might ask, quite rightly, where is the joy and celebration in that? But this conclusion overlooks completely characters like Brice Peel, the water boy who uses what little power he has to try to make things right, of Markus, who, in the end, succeeds in bringing the truth to light, of Roger, who refused to be bullied by a lie, and of, course, of Amos, whose devotion to truth was bright and unwavering. Their transcendant courage demands celebration.  There is joy, as well, in the ultimate triumph of the truth.  If you wonder what good this did Roger or Amos, all long dead before the revelation, you are taking too short a view.  Dying, you see, is  not the worst thing — indeed, we shall all do it.  Dying on the wrong side of truth might be.

The truth, Richards shows us, is fixed (a radical idea in our relativistic times). Roger would have been innocent, and others guilty, Brice brave, and Amos right whether or not Markus solved the case and whatever the perception.   The battle to be fought and won was not over truth.  It was not, either, between white and native. As  Markus explains to Max Doran, decades after the incident,

The contest was not between Roger Savage and us. That was the secondary show, the secondary battle.  The primary war was between you and you, or me and me, or my grandfather and my grandfather.  Isaac against Isaac.  Joel against Joel.

Racism and oppression are vehicles, Richards is saying, for injustice, but any injustice grows out of myriad individual betrayals of truth.  And here, we approach the incandescent heart of the novel — which is, at its core, a meditation on the nature of sin.  As Markus says, reflecting on the fateful summer of 1985,

suddenly truth became untruth and we encountered sin.

Life is a parade of truths, large and small, towards which we will be asked to align ourselves.  Sometimes championing the truth may prove inconvenient, frightening or dangerous. Sometimes it may be death of us.  The real battle, Richards’ story tells us,  is between one’s soul and the temptation to betray truth.  Sin (large and small) is what happens when an individual soul loses this contest.

For those readers who find themselves (as I did) in a post-revelatory funk after a quick and no doubt incomplete inventory of the day’s sins alone, and, as a result, once again lurching  towards despair, Richards has a message.  It is the same wise and generously compassionate message Markus brings to Max Doran, the young reporter whose ineptitude escalated the crisis on the reserve and who had abandoned his journalism career in dismay and regret. Markus, a great reader himself, has, in the intervening decades between the crisis, and his breakthrough in the case, pondered which piece of literature might prove most helpful to Doran.  He finally chooses Jospeh Conrad’s Shadow Line, which, as he explains to Max,

was about youth who are for the first time confronted with the harsh reality of the world — events that will turn idealism around, like a becalmed ship

 When Markus asks Max if he reads Conrad, Richards (authorial tongue firmly in cheek) has Max reply in the negative.  “Too gloomy.”  Markus’ (and Richards’) main point, though, is that whatever the past sin, while there is life there is hope and a way to redemption:  simply tell the truth.

you have to say, even to your daughter — even to her — that you made a mistake and that may have caused a life to be taken, and that is a terrible duty for us to get right. Me and you, we have to get it right, to get rid of the sin.

At the story’s conclusion, Markus, his long awaited catharsis accomplished, notes

how truth had now snapped those chains that had once seemed impossible to break

The secret to a good life is simple:  be faithful to the truth.  Not easy, but simple. And, as long as there is life, it is not too late to redeem yourself.  What message could be more joyful than that?

Lest we actually float away on a bubble of renewed idealism, it is adviseable to examine the final scene of the book:

Sky Barnaby, Little Joe’s older sister and Markus’ first love, now middle-aged, is being held in a cell at Markus’ detachment, brought in high on ecstasy, after a bar fight. Grey-haired and toothless, she lies in her own excrement, nearly naked, on the cement floor, handcuffed to the steel frame of a bed.  Her book-ending “Fuck you,”  is both a plea and a challenge.  There are many chains yet to be broken.

We live in extraordinary and insecure times, old certainties adrift in a sea of moral relativism, individualism run amok, and rapid realignments of power and value, on a global scale demanding unprecedented reappraisals of personal limits. We are, to be sure, experiencing events that can turn idealism around. Not surprising then, that the great existential question, “How should one live?” and issues of personal integrity hold a collective fascination and that Richards, who has made the examination of personal integrity a life’s work, has come into his own as a writer for our age.   I considered his earlier book Mercy Among the Children a great book.  Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul has even greater subtlety, clarity, power and immediate and undoubtedly lasting relevance.

For those still nervous about an encounter with gloominess and despair, I have one final salvo.  Please consider this line:

The summer wind blew across the lawn in a sweet, sad way, as if this breeze had just come from a fairy tale and found its way here.

Surely you feel safe in the hands of its creator?

 _____________________________________________

1.  Prideaux, Sue. Strindberg: A Life.  Yale UP, 2012.

 Other resources:  Quill and Quire Author Profile,

                                  Canadian Literature Review


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3 Responses to Richards, David Adams: Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul

  1. Pingback: Richards, David Adams: Crimes Against My Brother | Kerry On Can Lit

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  3. Pingback: Integrating Can Lit by Subject Area in the Senior Grades: some suggestions | Kerry On Can Lit

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