Imagine a flimsy dinghy tossed upon a Stygian river of rough love, cheap sex, and violent death in some New-Brunswick back-of-beyond and you begin to appreciate the cruel and carnal currents David Adams Richards navigates in The Bay of Love and Sorrows.
It's the latest instalment in the critically lauded Maritimer's grit-and-gristle series that includes, among its brighter offerings, Blood Ties, Lives of Short Duration, Hope in the Desperate Hour, and 1988's Governor-General's Award-winning Nights Below Station Street.
The Bay of Love and Sorrows revisits the shacks and homes scattered along the all-important road which, according to the omniscient yet mumpish narrator, "had become a very different place in just four months . . . The road, with the river that ran beyond it . . . had suddenly become less idyllic."
Because she feels it "proper for proper girls to wait," Karrie Smith, the only daughter of Dora and Emmett who own "the gas bar just above Oyster River," pursues Tom Donnerel until he catches her. When the winsome hopeful returns from community college to begin her life on Tom's farm, she attempts to rebuild the friendship between her fiancé and Judge Skid's son, Michael. Inevitably, a situation develops. Inevitably, it involves a metaphoric parade of grotesque characters led down a crooked, capricious, and occasionally overgrown path by Everette Hutch with the sister-brother duo of the radiantly beautiful Madonna and clinically depressed Silver Brassaurd firmly in grip and tragically in tow.
A sociopathic ex-con consumed with "gleeful savagery," Everette "was the swirling centre, the black hole where all the debris, the planets and moons, like Madonna and Silver and Michael Skid, teetered and wobbled in their orbits, and were being sucked into . . . Everette never understood the meaning of a difference between good and evil." In other words, he "was fascinated by his own violence, and always held the belief that he would commit a great crime, that he was a man who didn't like to be violent, but could not help it, since people got in his way."
Enter Constable John Delano who, midway through the carnage wrought by Everette's manipulations dealing drugs and scamming cash, confronts Michael concerning his penchant for messing around on the wrong side of the tracks:
Come on — how can you be fooled by this? He waved his hand in a quick arc and smiled slightly, as if he were calling on Michael's integrity. He was also calling on him to do something — and that was to give up his posture.
This, of course, Michael cannot do:
He felt for some reason he did owe Everette at least one favour. He did not know why he felt this. He felt in fact that he owed him a great deal. Cicero once wrote that men are sometimes grateful when men of power do not kill them.
At the heart of The Bay of Love and Sorrows lies a class struggle Richards deftly blocks out as a game of chess played among the protagonists in various unusual configurations. Karrie, Tom (and his "retarded" brother, Vincent), Michael, Madonna, Silver, and the constable all wrestle with issues of integrity, self-preservation, posturing, and power generated by Everette's greedy machinations.
Tom, believing "so many who were rebels against the status quo were often rebels against a sense of integrity in their own natures," warns Karrie that the "only real trouble is someday you will have to live the posture . . . it will be a hard life from then on." For her part, perhaps because "the naive are always dangerous to themselves and others," Karrie leaves Tom for Michael certain he "would not let her go back to Tom ever again" because "by the power of his voice and his brave eyes, [Michael] would finally win."
A writer of hyper-real prose pitched to a degree of limpid clarity found only in the works of Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, and Margaret Laurence, Richards penetrates the heart of fierce need and profligate greed in this dazzler of a novel oozing elegiac sadness even as it exposes the corrupt core of a civilisation increasingly noted for its barbarous desecration of the individual.
Hence, it is here, beneath the shadows of The Waste Land, that Richards effortlessly moves among the main characters and interweaves a story of love, sorrow, rats, poetry, death, and drugs which captures the elegant decay of the everyday in all its sumptuous squalor. In The Bay of Love and Sorrows, one of the world's finest web-spinners crafts a superb and rivetting yarn guaranteed to enrapture even the most demanding of readers yearning for an unforgettable fictional tapestry.
"The Bay of Love Sorrows by David Adams Richards" originally appeared 10 October 1998 in The Toronto Star.
© 1998-2008 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.