WHEN HERB CURTIS published his first novel (The Americans Are Coming, 1989), set in the Miramichi, the Halifax Daily News compared him with Garrison Keillor and Mark Twain. Now, with the publication of The Last Tasmanian (Goose Lane 291 pages, $14.95 paper), I wouldn't quibble if The News decided to compare him with Charles Dickens. Quite simply, this is a wonderful book. It has everything that anyone in search of a splendid read could possibly want: humour, pathos, love, death, birth, despair, lust, hate, and even idleness, that seventh "deadly sin ... [which] ... tempts you to experiment with the other six." It's also written with unaffected charm and a practised ear for the distinctive patterns of individual speech, so that no matter how many characters inhabit Curtis's mythical landscape the reader soon grasps the particularities each one.
Curtis's achievement in this novel is all the more impressive because he does not present it as the "star turn" that in fact it is. In his hands, this story of the people of the Miramichi takes on the archetypal meaning of the story of the aborigines of Tasmania, described thus by one of his characters: "I remember the story ... it was about a people, a race of people like no other race on earth ... They lived on an island called Tasmania ... till the whites came..."
So The Last Tasmanian offers more than exceptional entertainment. It's a fable for our time, and its message affects the susceptible Canadian reader the way the word "school" affected Curtis's teenaged hero: it "lodged in ... [his] ... solar plexus like a potato."