The Bay of Love and Sorrows
David Adams Richards
McClelland and Stewart, 1998
First published in Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Review by: Kerry Riley
The release of a new work of fiction by New Brunswick-born author David Adams Richards, is, for me, always a much anticipated event. His Miramichi trilogy (Nights Below Station Street, Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace, and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down) claims a permanent place on my list of all-time favourite works–volumes that I recommend, without reservation, to anyone who wants to talk books.
His new book, The Bay of Love and Sorrows, meets all the heightened expectations inevitably bound up with the status of “favourite author,” –meets them and exceeds them handily, joining its predecessors as a book to be recommended without reservation.
Typical of Richards, the story unfolds in a small, unprepossessing area of New Brunswick, known as Oyster River, around the lives of (according to our current, lamentable, image-driven zeitgeist) inconsequential people. Old school friends Tom Donnerel, and Michael Skid quarrel. This quarrel separates Michael (the town “rich kid”) from the strength and wisdom of his friend at a critical time.
Everette Hutch, a seriously dangerous local thug, just out of prison, has a problem. He owes his cousin Daryll (even more “serious business”) five thousand dollars. Everette, who, by chance, meets Michael at the local moonshiner, and has a very finely-tuned sense of these things, immediately recognizes him as the answer to his problem. In short order, Everette has ensnared Michael, as well as Silver and Madonna Brassaurd (a dirt-poor, sister and brother, under-privileged in the most profound sense, who have no power to resist him) in a plot to cap mescaline, and transport it to P.E.I. for resale.
During the boat run to P.E.I. a moment of panic on Michael’s part results in the drugs being thrown overboard. Michael, unwilling to admit, even to himself, the predicament his action had precipitated, tries to shrug off Silver and Madonna’s concerns. “Everette is our friend. He’ll understand. I know how to handle him. No one kills for fifteen thousand,” he snorts. Silver and Madonna are sorrowfully amazed by his ignorance. “…he would kill you for fifteen dollars,” Silver corrects.
As Richards succinctly summarizes, from this point on, “Everything they did was done to erase this one mistake.” Before the tragic, downward spiral of events has run its course, four people are dead and Tom is in jail.
Again, typical of Richards, the story is strong, but the real fascination of the book lies in his intricate understanding of the layered depths of human motivation. The assumptions of the privileged are dissected with precision, as are the machinations of Everette’s truly criminal mind.
Even minor characters, such as Gail Hutch, Everette’s long-suffering sister, and Dora Smith, the personification of brittle small-town meanness, are unforgettable. Madonna Brassaurd, in particular, the beautiful, whore/angel, whom we first meet in the process of gutting a buck, and who sacrifices herself for other’s sins, will haunt readers long after the story concludes.
Part of the secret of the power of Richards’ deceptively simple prose, I believe, comes from his ability to present the big ideas–truth, justice, redemption–in a way that forces you to identify with them as strongly as you did when you were a child. Remember how important the idea of “fairness,” was then? And what is fairness, really, but a composite of all those big ideas?
Quoted in isolation, some of his devices seem almost laughably quaint–Tom is an orphan, struggling to run his parents farm and care for his retarded brother, Vincent. Vincent drowns trying to save his dog, who, blinded by a vicious kick to his eye, falls into a creek.(The dog drowns too.) Vincent has a pet gerbil named “Snowflake,” doomed to starve when Tom goes to jail. Madonna and Silver, as kids, desperately poor, and abused, just want a bicycle–and despite heroic efforts, are denied one by nothing more than Dora Smith’s nastiness.
In a manner reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s work, Richards also uses animals to open some direct conduit to a reader’s early, innocent ability to be outraged by injustice. That pure sort of outrage you felt before you learned how dangerous it could be and how little difference it might make. In less skilled hands these details would amount to preposterous melodrama–but, here, only increase the impact of the main narrative.
In one particularly striking example, readers (who may have grown complacent sympathizing with Richards’ dissection of the shallow presumptions of the privileged classes) have their own presumptions poked–by a rat. As Richards describes it, “a rat burrowed down to suckle her nine young, her favourite, one with a small, black, slick face.” Is it possible for rat mothers to have favourite children? How many readers, however liberal-minded, would have granted a rat or any animal that much imagination and discrimination? It’s an unsettling echo of society’s attitude towards its own outcasts.
Beautiful and bothersome, in the manner of a well-sung lament, The Bay of Love and Sorrows, can only increase Richards’ reputation as one of our best Canadian writers. Rumour has it that he is hard at work at his next novel–we’ll be watching with great anticipation!
Richards, David Adams