The narrative is classic in its simplicity: a young man in the grip of a criminal compulsion gets a police record and, because his parents have neglected to register him as a U.S. citizen, finds himself deported back to Canada. He returns to rural Cape Breton which he left as a child and where his family has deep ancestral roots. There he lives in the old family home, with a rough, hard-drinking, womanizing, bachelor uncle. Since he has no means of transportation, his escape from the uncle's oppressive company is to lose himself in the deeply wooded area that surrounds the house. He also develops a long-range plan of escape; following a book of instructions, he plants and fosters marijuana seeds, hoping that the sale of the crop will fund his way out of the "ass-end of nowhere."
Within those contours a familiar set of polarities emerges, every detail elaborating the clash between the old ways and the new. Behind Innis Corbett is the densely populated city of Boston from which he has been exiled. Its high-tech, speed-obsessed culture is typified by the automobile. It is a car accident that has robbed Innis of his father, and sent his mother into the arms of many lover; and it is stealing cars that is his particular brand of criminal activity. He steals mainly luxury carsłLincoln Continentals, Porsches, Cadillacsłnot for profit or vengeance or to impress the "hard guys" he runs with, but for the false high that his addiction produces. It is a high similar to that produced by his other addiction, smoking pot.
His native Cape Breton, in contrast, is sparsely populated. "You live a little differently when you have room," his uncle tells him. The inhabitants are mostly old families conscious of their family histories. They are descendants of the highland Scots who settled the place, and their speech is like their collective memory, rich with echoes of an earlier time. They make liberal use of Gaelic phrases, as in their familiar greeting, "Co leis thu?" (Whose are you?). This is a place where, to paraphrase a Faulknerian character, "the past is never past."
If there are fewer temptations to crime in this area, there are also fewer opportunities for earning money. Innis relies on odd jobs for pin money. He is a skilled artist but there is no profitable outlet for drawing and sketching in his life. It is a secret vice, like smoking pot, often at the service of his private erotic fantasies. His only artistic endeavor is a job painting the house of a kindly priest. Religion here is also a force that it is hard to ignore.
In its trajectory, Innis Corbett's journey parallels that of author D.R. MacDonald. MacDonald too was born on Cape Breton Island and left for the United States, where he served his apprenticeship as a writer. In 1969 he won a Stegner fellowship at Stanford where he now teaches. Yet in his fictional territory the ex-patriate finds himself pulled back over the border, compelled presumably, to his native roots. The correspondence between author and subject is worthy of note, because the motif of a return journey (both geographical and temporal) is a significant part not only of MacDonald's plot but of his aesthetic philosophy.
If the summary of the novel suggests themes so familiar as to be almost hackneyed, that is not accident but a deliberate choice on the part of the author. MacDonald, by virtue of his profession and his current location in the most forward-looking part of the North American continent must be more aware than most of us of current trends and directions in turn-of-the-century writing. Yet he has deliberately turned his back on the hyperactive experimentation and often manic jocularity that has characterized the post-modern period. He has chosen instead the calm, unhurried idiom of an earlier time.
It is no accident that his novel opens with a paragraph that consciously evokes Robert Frost's 1923 poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Innis Corbett finds himself wandering in late afternoon in somebody else's woods, the taste of "downy flake" on his tongue. The echo of a poem so familiar that it's known by most high school students, is a bold, almost defiant gesture that amounts to a declaration of his literary purpose. And indeed, the rhythms of the following description of Innis as he finds his bearings in the woods have much in common with Hemingway's descriptions of Nick Adams and Faulkner's of Ike McCaslin:
He carried a bucksaw loosely in one hand, and in the other a walking stick that beat snow out of the boughs, showed him snow depth, ice thinness, heard but unseen water, and if he found himself without the stick, he would retrace his steps in a crouch until he saw where he had set it down, distracted by something he wanted to inspectłtracks, a bush, a hole in the snow that said an animal lives here.
Just as the idiom that falls on Innis' ear in Cape Breton is tinged with biblical and Gaelic echoes, so MacDonald's prose harks back to that of the great American stylists of the second decade of the twentieth century. There is no mischievous narrator here pulling playful tricks on the reader, but a narrative voice so steady and measured that it endows everything it relates with a mythic quality. It gives a step by step account of Innis Corbett's patient efforts to raise his marijuana crop from seeds sent by a friend in Boston. He causes them to germinate in secrecy and darkness in the attic under the shelter of his grandmother's loom. Finally, when their growing strength and the changing season makes it expedient to do so, he transplants them to a spot in the woods where they can thrive under his continued care. The whole description resonates with metaphorical implications. Thus a young man might thrive. And thus too, in similar circumstances, a writing talent might be fostered.
The narrative voice is also capable of fine lyric effects, as when Innis finally witnesses the silver thaw he has previously only heard of. It turns the trees into "teetering, translucent sculptures, laden with a lovely weight some could not hold, their crowns bent to the ground, their trunks bowed, gracefully tensed." The novel is a stylistic triumph, combining the strengths of an earlier era with, in its dialogue, the thoroughly modern vernacular of our day.
Like many of the writers MacDonald reveres and evokes, the territory he charts is basically masculine, a world of men without women. Predictably, since it goes with that territory, Innis runs into trouble in his new surroundings when a woman appears on the scene. She's an ex-flight-attendant with great looks, great hair, long legs, and much expertise in the sack, the sleeping bag, on the beach, or wherever. One might wish that the character of this pre-feminist apparition had been drawn a little differently, perhaps that a mind had been added to her other attributes. But that's a flaw outweighed by many virtues in a novel where so much is perfectly calibrated.
Joan Givner's latest book is a novel Half Known Lives.