"One cannot, somehow, think of him as a revolutionary, in the sense that James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence are revolutionaries, yet his contribution to literature is as original as theirs. He has given us a new formula. He is of the generation and yet not of it. His novels are only possible because he has cut himself off from twentieth-century civilization, and yet could not have been written in no other century than this. He owes little or nothing to contemporary literature; all his debts are to the past. He derives from no 'school' and he will found none. But it is probable that future generations will regard him as standing in the same relation to this generation as Blake did to his."
That's William Hunter writing of T.F. Powys (1875–1953) in The Novels and Stories of T.F. Powys (1930 ), but much the same can be said of David Adams Richards, whose thirteenth novel, The Friends of Meager Fortune, may well be his greatest literary accomplishment. It has the power, immensity, and melancholy of which Nobel prizewinners are sometimes made (Solzhenitsyn comes to mind). So why did it fail this year to be shortlisted for national prizes Richards has won in the past—the Governor General's (for Nights Below Station Street), the Giller (for Mercy Among the Children)? At this late date, can it still be true that professional readers are missing the point of David Adams Richards' visionary poetics?
There's such strong thematic, stylistic, and religious continuity between Powys and Richards that one might almost suspect a direct influence, except that T. F. Powys is so little read beyond a circle of devotees that is even tinier than the one that regards his older brother, John Cowper Powys, as the most underestimated English writer of the 20th century. Both T.F. Powys and David Adams Richards are originals who share such great and obvious sources of inspiration—the Bible, Bunyon's Pilgrim's Progress and Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience—that other lines of influence are unimportant. What sympathetic readers of Richards and Powys have to accept in these authors is that both novelists consciously and deliberately invent small, essentially rural worlds that are large enough to contain every quality ever imagined in mud and God. Such worlds are also elastic enough that love and death, good and evil can present themselves either savagely or lyrically through characters, who truly act honourably or despicably, while serving larger purposes as symbols and allegories of an unorthodox Christianity that intertwines strands of pantheism, quietism, and mysticism.
As a pure storyteller, Richards has it all over just about every male writer in this country in his ear for local Canadian speech patterns, eye for individual details of dress and manners, and feel for the effects of physical deprivation. And one of the things that especially attracts me to Richards's storytelling (which I've been tracking pretty closely since 1974) is that he works much harder than most male novelists of our generation to fairly represent the actual strengths and weaknesses of everyday women who are trying to exorcise the demonic forces unleashed by 19th-century European paternalism in order to create their own spiritual and moral victories—even if it means falling into new forms of viciousness. He's also far more richly comic than any other novelist, male or female, because his comedy is so deeply rooted in an absurdist's delight in the illogicality of thinking processes raddled by alcohol and drugs or addled by greed and vengeance. All of these qualities come to the fore in The Friends of Meager Fortune, a tale set against the backdrop of the lumber trade in 1946.
Owen Jameson, a heroic officer who has fought with the Canadian First Army "on the left flank of Monty for ten months" until being wounded in France and then decorated with the VC, returns from the Second World War to take over the company founded by his father and elevated in the world by his older brother, "the great Will Jameson" who died prematurely. Owen's "family was in lumber, or was Lumber" and it's his intention—despite his bookishness, sensitivity, and injury—to restore its primacy in the New Brunswick woods by directing the most ambitious cut ever undertaken: "further up the river, past where anyone had gone before . . . to cut on Good Friday Mountain." It is the end of the great age of hand saws and axes, teams of men and teams of horses, "and how a good man lived then would try the best men now." Trees the diameter of two or thee men are felled and scraped and sledged to the banks of tributaries of the Miramichi River through winter until spring run-off drives the log booms to the mills. To get the logs off Good Friday, teamsters must run "the devil's back"—"a drop that seemed to plummet into the void." As the men, trees, and mountain resound to countless physical blows, the milltown downstream is flooded by rumours and innuendos about Owen Jameson's relationship with Camellia Glidden and the role it may have played in the mysterious disappearance of her husband, his loyal friend Reggie.
That's the barest of descriptions of a novel that begins with a prophecy passed on through drink and a deck of cards from a Micmac woman to Owen's mother "that her first-born would be a powerful man and have much respect—but that his brother would be even greater, yet destroy the legacy by rashness," proceeds through human viciousness, folly, drunkenness, and betrayals to a sensational trial and its aftermath, and then becomes a meditation on fate and destiny in all their misery and glory. As I noted elsewhere in a review of his previous novel, River of the Brokenhearted, a David Adams Richards novel always achieves more than the sum of its parts. This has much to do with the fact that his vision is both poetic and religious—but religious in a very special way: Richards has cited Hardy, Conrad, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and the Bible as essential influences. I've never heard him mention Blaise Pascal. Maybe he has not read the Pensées (1670), and that really wouldn't matter. Richards' own Catholicism and that of his characters is unthinkable without the Augustinus of Cornelius Jansen, Pascal, and Port-Royal-des-Champs where Irish priests were trained while Britain outlawed Catholic seminaries. You don't have to accept Jansen's own anti-intellectual preference (and Richards') for moral knowledge gained through experience rather than through abstract reasoning, or be a believer to be awed by the existential anguish in Pascal's aphorisms: "we never live but we hope to live" or "faith is God perceived by the heart not by reason" or "the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of" or "we shall die alone." It is Pascal's notion, relentlessly applied by Richards, that life is a gamble that you'll always lose if you wager against God's inscrutable existence that makes Richards' work so potent. It's the kind of thinking that threatened to turn every man into a King and the Sun King to nothingness seventy-five years before the French Revolution. Turning Miles King's nothingness into something very special in River of the Brokenhearted made that novel a lesser achievement than The Friends of Meager Fortune, which surpasses even his Giller Prize-winning Mercy Among the Children (2000) in intensity and breadth. As well as an apt description of the community in which the house of Jameson rises and falls, we're given the character of Meager Fortune—a simple, semi-literate camp keeper and the luckiest of men: Fortune's capacity to forgive tops the rancorous settling of old scores that competition, drink, and pure devilment fuels in others.
After winning the Giller five years ago, David Adams Richards told an interviewer that he thought he only had two novels left in him. There's a valedictory feel to The Friends of Meager Fortune that begins to rise from the pages as longtime fans of Richards begin to realise that several of the minor characters playfully bear the names of the author's longtime friends and formative influences, but that sense of a great summing up fully takes hold as traces of earlier characters and storylines weave in and out of this one. And then the tale's narrator, whose presence is barely felt at the beginning, announces his own birth and brings the consequences of the logging of Good Friday Mountain in 1946–47 seamlessly into the present. As he looks out his upstairs bedroom window, he can see
"the new generation traveling on their skateboards off those old pipes at the side of the mill Will Jameson once owned. They teeter and move like princes in the wind, their shirts behind them, and maneuver across the cold railings in this desolate broken lot, thirty feet above the ground. They are the out-of-work children of out-of-work fathers whose grandfathers worked in the long ago. They are as tough as stone and as kind as a day is long . . . And they move like their forefathers before them, as if in their primitive hearts a fortune was at stake."
Thinking of them and thinking of their forefathers, and the narrator, who so closely observes both, it's relatively easy to think that once we were at least hewers of wood, now we are lesser than that. To think this, all you have to do is read all that precedes this skateboarding scene without vision, without poetry. But read as intended, the allegory is indescribably subtle. There is much that can only be fully grasped in retrospect and by turning back after the visceral excitement of men and horses walking along the edge of "the devil's back" has passed. The more one reads this book, the more one admires its overall astonishing cohesiveness and coherence in plumbing the depths of innocence and experience.
Its failure to win prizes rests mainly in the demands it makes of its readers. The book must be read slowly, intensely and repeatedly in a way that is common enough among everyday readers but becomes increasingly difficult for professionals at a time when too many trees give up too much life to mediocrities that will never leap into tongues of flame nor rise as pillars of smoke and carry our dreams with them. •
Note: Mr. Weston's Good Wine, T.F. Powys's best-known novel, is being reissued this month by Vintage Books. Some of his other works are available in limited editions from Edgeway Books in England.