Michael Winter House of Anansi, 384 pages, $36.

To hear Michael Winter tell it over coffee at a café on King Street West, his life is a series of conveniences and immediate shortcuts. “I guess I’m not somebody who really has a goal in mind. I don’t know what a good life is, I don’t have an idea about the type of life I’d like to live. I’m just enjoying a coffee with you, it’s a nice day and I’ve got some money in my pocket and everything’s going to be OK for the next little while. And I’m really happy about this,” the England-born, Newfoundland-raised Toronto author says.
“But a lot of people are really kind of driven with this sense of the ideal life they wish to attain.” And those are the sorts of people — they of the goals and ideals and grandiose plans — Winter portrays to devastating effect in his historical novel, The Big Why. “People just ignore huge sides of who they really are for this kind of template of what might be an ideal person in their mind.”

The Big Why is full of such characters (and some could say the same frustrating pattern of ill-concieved grandeur applies to Newfoundland’s strange history itself). Notably, there is Bob Bartlett, who bases life and identity on a failed polar expedition, and principally, Rockwell Kent, the New York artist famous for his woodcuts who spent a year in Newfoundland prior to World War I.

The novel is structured as Kent’s memoir of his year among the colonial savages, in which his adopted town of Brigus, Newfoundland loses sons to the whims of the ocean and a pointless war. Kent remains firmly married to an idea of himself writ large, a dreamer’s striving coupled with a pig-headed stubbornness that alienates nearly everyone around him — including, eventually, his wife — and finally sees him kicked out of the country in 1915.

Kent the narrator is wise to the flaws of his younger self, if not exactly regretful. As Winter says, “As an old man, I wanted him to reflect on his life and think, ‘I was so willful in my life, and yet I’ve sabotaged the very things I was after through that willfulness.'”

The Big Why represents an interesting break in Michael Winter’s career, despite the current mania in this country for historical novels. Winter’s two collections of short stories and his novel, This All Happened, concerned themselves with the contemporary life of Gabriel English, a character whom most assumed (and Winter admits) was a thinly veiled stand-in for himself.

Winter says the change of timeframe and subject matter was itself partly a convenient matter of self-preservation.

“This thing about autobiography is something I encouraged people to think when they read my work. I like that when I’m reading writers, feeling like these things must be closely observed and felt by the author, because it’s so interesting and heartfelt and true that he can’t just have invented them,” he says. “That’s fair for me, but it’s not fair for my family and friends who read a book and say, ‘That’s me in there, and people are going to know it and I’m slightly hurt by it.’ So I was hurting people left, right and centre by the things I was writing, and you look back and start getting a bit wounded as a writer. You think, ‘Am I doing something wrong? Is this bad, or is it just the case that a writer loses all his friends and family for the sake of his art?’ I don’t want to do that, I love these people.”

He depicts his approach to historical accuracy similarly. “First of all, if I have someone who’s not a Newfoundlander, he can get things wrong, and it doesn’t matter. Because getting things wrong about Newfoundland culture? I’d get shot. Secondly, if you have an old man reflecting on his youth, you know he only spent a few months in Newfoundland, he can get things wrong about his youth…. So anachronisms can creep in and I’ve got a good excuse for them.”

Whatever the motivations and method, the effect is powerful. Winter successfully conjures an historical Newfoundland that is both remote from the present day (the whims of nature spell death for more than one character) and yet feels contemporary.

“Some historical novels treat the past as if everybody was in starched shirts and they spoke to each other in a very polite manner and in a composed way and had no blood dripping through their veins; I don’t believe it. I don’t believe people are like that,” he says. “Even if people were kind of formal in the smoking room, I didn’t want to write that scene. I’m interested in what they do in the bedroom, what do they do privately, what are their private thoughts while formal things are going on. So that’s what I focused on.”

The writing is exciting in its freshness and all the more exciting for the lack of any apparent po-mo cleverness. Winter’s short, precise sentences perform a service both to the scenes about hunting and fishing (at times it feels he’s channelling Hemingway) and to the impenetrable yearning that afflicts nearly every character in the book. His dialogue manages the neat trick of finding the rhythms of Newfoundlanders without any Aye’s-the-bye-ism. He turns poetic phrases into scenes into a panoramic survey of the culture.

Historical in setting or not, The Big Why is not a book about history. It’s about sex and relationships and art and about how ambition is its own nemesis. By the time the title is explained in the end, Winter has gone a good way to shedding light — one short sentence and elliptical comment at a time — on that really big, important unknown.

Originally published in Eye Weekly October 21, 2004.