Review by Frank Moher
Blackstrap Hawco is a big book, but it’s also what used to be called a Big Book. This was a genre hatched in the 1950s and ’60s by U.S. authors anxious to prove that their Big Book was bigger than other U.S. authors’ Big Books. “Great American Novel” might be the synonym. John O’Hara, John Updike, and Norman Mailer come to mind as practitioners of the form.
Canadian authors have largely resisted the urge to write the corresponding Great Canadian Novel, an almost certainly futile task. Mordecai Richler came as close to pulling it off in Solomon Gursky Was Here as anyone is likely to, but most attempts founder on the fact that the country is too broad and variegated to be captured in any depth, no matter how big the Big Book.
A province or region might be though, which is Kenneth J. Harvey’s wholly successful strategy in his rich and tender new novel. Blackstrap Hawco is both a working man’s history of Newfoundland and a biography of one of its most loyal sons. It’s a giant iceberg of a book, its dense and gangly front end serving as ballast for the surprisingly simple story that follows.
Its title is a name. Blackstrap, son of a British merchant’s daughter and a local trapper, is born into a dark legacy of deaths on ice floes, intrigue and blackmail back in the old country, and routine exploitation by the bosses back in St. John’s. Harvey roots much of his narrative in fable, as if the distant past is a magical and maniacal place, only faintly knowable. In 19th-century Newfoundland, a sealer, Blackstrap’s grandfather, survives a white-out on the ice only to choose, inexplicably, to live out his days on a shipwrecked steamer, trading with passing ships. An outport village is visited by a plague of birds and wildlife, the consequence of an unholy union between a bishop and a destitute Irish woman.
“The animals that flocked to Bareneed wreaked havoc upon the lands,” Harvey writes, in one of roughly a dozen different styles he uses in the book. “. . . The birds that filled the sky, as their own winged, ever-present colony, drifted inches apart, wingtip to wingtip, without collision, and shat upon everything and anyone who ventured out of doors.”
The novel’s early going is filled with marvelous set-pieces of that sort — Harvey flexing his prodigious skills. As it proceeds, it focuses in on its ramshackle hero, whose world-view is largely shaped by the teachings of his father, Jacob. “Intelligence is fer dose with no mind fer real work,” Jacob advises, and: “Canada ripped the spines right outta us. All words, now, all mout’, not the ghost of a backbone left in most men. 1949. God forsaken year.”
Blackstrap distinguishes himself early. He won’t work in the town’s fish plant, won’t take UI either. Instead, he does casual labour and drives a big rig, though he doesn’t actually bother to acquire a big rig licence. His progress, such as it is, is marked by the series of women in his life, who pass him along like an item of used clothing: Agnes, the first girlfriend who leaves for university in Halifax; Karen, the mother of his two children, who leaves him for an RCMP officer (and meets her own dark fate); Patsy, the fallback lover who eventually cannot tolerate sharing the house with his widower Dad.
Harvey’s protagonist is a model of indirect characterization — you think you know very little about him, until the book’s late pages, when you realize you know him to his core. This has something to do with the refracted structure used here; Harvey mixes time frames, interspersing bits of Blackstrap’s early and middle years with the history and lore of his family. It isn’t until he undergoes a series of extraordinary events in the final third, including surviving the Ocean Ranger disaster — the only one to do so — and later leading a minor rebellion against Portuguese fishing fleets, before succumbing to his penchant for less comic violence, that the character comes fully into focus. He is the sum of all his ancestors: wounded, addled, and enduring.
Blackstrap Hawco doesn’t need to be quite as big as it is. Some story threads seem to lead nowhere, and a satirical, fantastic timeline of the year 1984 that goes on for pages is a major self-indulgence. But for the most part it earns its 848 pages. Kenneth J. Harvey, Atlantic gale, continues to astonish. And in Blackstrap Hawco, he has given Newfoundland, not to mention the world, something very great indeed.