Monday, September 20, 2010

Review: A Splinter in the Heart, by Al Purdy

I’ll say up front that this was a rare instance of me coming to a book knowing fairly well that it was going to be bad. I have a few friends who’ve read A Splinter in the Heart, Canadian poet Al Purdy’s only published novel, and their condemnation of it has been universal. Still, I wanted to see for myself if this book, written by one of Canada’s most revered men of verse, was as dreadful as all that. I’ll also say up front that I am a huge fan of a lot of Purdy’s poetry, and there’s virtually nothing that could sully my opinion of his work in that medium.

But oh my. A Splinter in the Heart really is a piece of shite. I mean, you would need to have won a couple of GGs in another medium before your publisher would release such a travesty, or even touch it with a barge pole. If this manuscript of hysterical amateurism had come in on the slush pile, nobody at M&S would have gotten past page two.

The story is set in the town of Trenton, Ontario in 1918. Sixteen-year-old Patrick Cameron is coming of age just as the First World War is winding down: he’s fallen in love with a new classmate, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jean Tomkins; he’s struck up a (mostly internalized) rivalry with fellow long-distance runner Kevin Morris; and he’s watched his mysterious, slovenly grandfather Portugee die from the outbreak of Spanish Flu. The historical backdrop to all of this is the real-life explosion that occurred at Trenton’s British Chemical Factory in October of 1918, and the novel’s various threads lead up to this one, pivotal tragedy. The model for such an approach is, of course, Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising, which used the infamous Halifax Explosion (occurring some 10 months before the accident in Trenton) for similar purposes.

Only, Purdy’s novel possesses none of MacLennan’s careful structuring and occasional flourishes of nuance. Each subplot of A Splinter in the Heart is crudely conceived and strewn through the book without much thought to purpose. Patrick’s adolescent obsessions – with Jean, with his grandfather, with the perceived successes of his rival Kevin – are told adolescently, as if Purdy (nearly 72 when he published this book) couldn’t separate his own well-seasoned, experienced mind from the naïve, immature one that inhabits Patrick’s head. Consequently, the third-person narration is a dog’s breakfast of bad analogies and unearned portent. Add in countless sections about the history of Trenton, cropping up pointlessly throughout the text, and you’ll be tempted to throw this book across the room more than once. It’s as if Purdy is writing for MacLennan’s Canadian audience of 1941 – back when any literary novel set in Canada was a rarity and we were more willing to forgive bad dialogue, inane bursts of historicism, and embarrassing sentimentality in our nation's literature.

Indeed, it is the prose that undoes A Splinter in the Heart at every turn. Never mind that the dialogue is infested with countless examples of “exposition monkeys” (a wonderful term that RR taught me) and Patrick speaks like no sixteen-year-old ever would. It’s the actual narration that drove me to distraction. If I didn’t know better, I would say that Purdy was ignorant of the rules for crafting good sentences. A random example from early in the book:

Dizzily he’d regain his desk, face slightly red. Kevin Morris’s eyes would be on him inscrutably, Billy Coons’s eyes knowingly. And the girls, demurely working away at Miss Gothard’s class assignment, would have their own eyes modestly lowered. Harold Wannamaker, star football player, winked at him delightedly from the corner of the room.
A shiny nickel for anyone who can point out the type of word, which every writing manual says to use sparingly, contributes a whopping 13.2% of that entire passage.

Also, for someone so gifted at poetry, Purdy is an utter clod when stirring a little bit of metaphor into his prose. Take this example:

Patrick had his own monster to contend with, and decided the monster was himself. Before the June exams, after which Grade 10 students were allowed to sniff the rarified air of upper academia, he dreamed his own dream. In it he failed the examination … They were all watching him, fearfully, shrinking away from the failed monster. Patrick sobbed, his mother sobbed. And he swam to safety through ten-foot waves of his own tears.

Oh, we’re crying ten-foot tears ourselves over here, Al.

The saddest thing about A Splinter in the Heart is that there is a shorter, better novel buried deep inside this one. It’s only when Purdy introduces the character of Red MacPherson – a long-lost friend of Patrick’s grandfather who shows up after the old guy has died – that the story takes on any intrigue. Red, along with his cadre of misfits, paints for Patrick a much different, much more noble picture of his grandfather for the young lad. To me, this was the heart of the book and would have made a much more interesting story. I didn’t care for an instant about beautiful Jean Tomkins, or the stresses of long-distance running, or how they went about making T.N.T. at the British Chemical plant. But I did care about how Red and his buddies undermined Patrick’s ideas about his own grandfather. I wish Purdy had thrown out the rest and just focused on that.

Alas, he didn’t. And alas, this book remains a singular novelistic blight on an otherwise admirable literary career.

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