ANDFATHER DAD, patriarch of the Dunne family, strides through the pages of Wayne Johnston's fine new novel, The Time of Their Lives, like a force of nature cruel, intolerant, tyrannical, and selfish scattering his loved ones like chaff in his wake.
He humiliates his sons, calls his daughters sluts and whores, taunts a neighbour when illness forces him to go on welfare. When his wife is bedridden, dying of cancer, he bangs open her door and growls, "I s'pose I'll get no breakfast from you this morning...." He is the centre of the family, the foil, dominating and indomitable. His only virtue is stubbornness, a willingness to persist against long odds (each spring he quarters his fields on hands and knees, picking up stones) and even against the calls of common humanity, family feeling, and reason.
Yet when he dies and this is the riddle of what Freudians call the family romance he is surrounded by his children and grandchildren. This horrid man has become the stuff of legend; his enigmatic gibes have become the subject of endless interpretation and exegesis; his stubborn meanness has come to be seen as eccentric, almost charming.
The Time of Their Lives, however, is not simply about Dad, is not a novel with a single protagonist. As the title suggests, the book has a collective hero, the family, the Dunnes, their wives, husbands, and children. At least a dozen characters are treated more or less in depth. But especially, it is about Dad's relationship with his second son, Raymond, a cheerful, attractive boy who tries to rebel, tries to set up independently as a fisherman, but fails, turns alcoholic, loses his family, and dies soon after his father because (the implication of the narrative structure is clear) he cannot live without him.
Johnston, whose muchacclaimed The Story of Bobby O'Malley won the 1986 W.H. Smith /Books in Canada First Novel Award, writes with a sombre and ironic wisdom about the dark side of the nuclear family and the corrosive effects of poverty and working class ennui. Though nominally set in Newfoundland (this book does have its Marquezian aspect, using the island's history from 1921 to the 1980s as a backdrop: Sixty Years of Solitude), The Time of Their Lives is firmly situated in an R. D. Laing universe where the paradigm of the family is a concentration camp.
As in his previous book, Johnston uses a teenage boy narrator in this case John Foley, one of Dad's grandsons to distance his brutal vision. The effect of the narrator in The Story of Bobby O'Malley was to create high comedy out of an unloved father's decline through adultery and unemployment to suicide. This narrator, John Foley, tells the story of the Dunne clan as a sort of memoir or reminiscence in a deceptively casual, almost innocent, almost jocular way. This all happened some time ago, or don't adults say the darnedest things? he seems to be saying.
My mother told how, on countless occasions, she opened the kitchen door, only to be met full in the face by her father's hand. He would hold the throat of her dress with one hand and strike her with the other. "Ya whore," he'd say, "out traipsin' around, ya little whore." It usually ended with Mom coming out and shrieking at Dad to let her go which he would do and go back swearing to his room. Then, my mother said, it was Mom's hand she felt; if she covered her face, Mom struck her arms and stomach; when she dropped her arms, Mom struck her face again. It would go on Like this until my mother started crying, and then Mom would put her arms around her, brush her hand softly on her cheek and say, "There, there Sheila."
This passage is typical in many respects. Note the distancing devices. First, it happened long ago and to someone else ("My mother told how...").Second, it's not exactly a scene, it's several similar scenes telescoped and somewhat generalized ("on countless occasions," "would," I usually"). Third, the humour of hyperbole and dialect ("Ya whore..." this to a young teenage girl who's been out an hour after the regular family bedtime, 9 P.m.) Fourth, the humour in the farcical or Dickensian interplay between Mom and Dad (Mom coming out shrieking, Dad going in swearing, Mom pummelling Sheila).
The upshot of this rather cunning narrative conceit is that Johnston can more or less painlessly (pleasurably) lead the reader through 200 pages of sadness and suffering. A corollary is that because this boy narrator doesn't know, say, R. D. Laing's The Politics of the Family, we are spared any attempts at psychosociological explanation, any taint of the case history. Instead, Johnston, the author, just shows and shows, making his points subtly but devastatingly by cumulative effect and by structural repetition.
For example, Dad mercilessly baits and persecutes his two boys; later, Raymond (Dad's weaker alter ego, his noveldouble) baits Ted Foley, the narrator's ineffectual and disappointed father. In a fit of jealousy, Dad ploughs up his son Murchie's crops; in his turn, Raymond digs up Ted Foley's garden with a hoe because he can't stand to see another man take joy where he has failed. It is as though the father has put his stamp on the son, binding him to the family, to himself, and destroying him in the process.
And when Raymond dies of alcohol abuse at the close of the novel, you can hear Dad's words echoing down through the years: "'You'll be back,' Dad roared at him as he left the house, 'you'll be back because I'll bring you back.'