(Book review, Christian Courier, September 24, 2012)
The epigraph of Samuel Thomas Martin’s novel, A Blessed Snarl, lays down the paradox in one thick stroke: “In Newfoundland nature is a blessed snarl, humans an imposition.” For Martin’s characters, yes, Newfoundland is a knife, scaling them like so many “fish washed up on a rock,” frantically flopping about for salvation. The Rock with its “fanged north coast” is a harsh landscape; the Atlantic, “terrifying, frothing where it gnaws at the jagged shoreline.” This isn’t Ontario, warns a cop: “You hit a moose here at that speed and its ass will take your head clear off.” The austere topography becomes a metaphor for life, where characters and readers alike struggle to find hope in the darkness, where, as in one of Rembrandt’s paintings, the flickering light of a candle seems a hopelessly frail defense against the gathering gloom.
Rev. Patrick Wiseman, “strangely sure-footed in his Sunday shoes,” is as fervent as the original Irish saint. He moves his wife Anne and his son Hab from Ontario to Newfoundland to pastor a Pentecostal church in a suburb called, of all things, Paradise. His father-in-law, Gurney Gunther, also a preacher, tells Patrick, “Newfoundland was once the Pentecostal capital of Canada, you know,” he himself having performed miracles of healing, including, it is said, having raised his daughter Anne from the dead. But as Patrick gets caught up in the busyness of New Life Church, his family falls apart, despite their faith heritage. Anne leaves him for a high school crush; Hab moves in with his girlfriend Natalie. Patrick is left dazed, exiled by his own, like Jeremiah or David or Absalom, not able to make “sense of his life without seeing it enmeshed in the biblical story.”
Natalie works in a group home, terrorized by a psychotic resident. She drinks and pops pills to stave off her anxiety and to deaden tragic memories. Her roommate Gerry, a writer, is also haunted by his history. Inflamed by those long-ago wounds, Gerry commits an appalling crime. Patrick’s estranged father, Des, communes with the Virgin Mary in his cabin, her visage materializing from a creosote stain on the wall. An old secret excoriates his soul, the guilt still not expunged after decades of sobriety. But these characters are not grotesque; you sense that Martin pities them and is keenly aware of their worth, their individuality lovingly outlined like faces in a Van Gogh portrait.
Martin’s debut work, This Ramshackle Tabernacle, was a finalist for the 2010 Winterset Award and for the 2011 ReLit Award for Short Fiction. A Blessed Snarl, his sophomore effort, corroborates his talent. There’s careful weight in the description and dialogue, but the plot moves briskly through a typically Canadian ordinariness. Anne drives on the 401 from London towards Hamilton. Patrick, Hab and a stranger take shelter together during a vicious storm. Conversations are littered with the profanity you hear on the street. All so very Canuck.
Fair warning: the language offends. As it should. Wyndham Lewis once remarked testily, “If I write about a rotting hill, it’s because I despise rot.” Here, too, the blunt obscenities serve to confront, to underscore that something stinks. Similarly, Martin’s locales are unflinchingly gritty, degradation slouched up against libraries and coffeehouses. But, like overlapping leaflets on a graffitied wall, poignant questions about God are plastered on the same page as vulgarity and despair. And that could be the very blessing of the snarl. In trouble, you look for help. Hab pinpoints his own need simply: “He wants to share a meal with people who sit around a table and talk. He wants a glass of wine, and for God to answer his prayers.”
Literature as canvas
The novel is painterly, patiently-applied imagery colouring in the story behind the story. A fishing motif arises naturally from the East Coast setting. When Anne knocks on the front door of her Facebook lover, she is overcome, “like something gutting her, like a fillet knife in a fish’s belly.” When the rendezvous reveals a bitter truth, she “felt like a fish hooked through the gills ….” In happier times, she had taught her nephew Kyle to catch muskie, but once he had unexpectedly snagged a ling, a strange north-water cod that her father called a “dirty fish and not much sought after by real fishermen.” The battle to land that mystery fish is an iconic memory for Anne, but also for the reader who catches traces of Jesus inviting fishermen to be “fishers of men,” faint suggestions of just how “dirty” those fish are, how nasty the fight to reel them in.
Fire is another evocative image, one that mesmerizes Natalie as a photographer. But after she survives a harrowing tenement blaze in which twenty-three lives are lost, she becomes unhinged: “It seems unreal, the fire, even now, after replaying it over and over in her head, trying to separate it from her imaginings of Hell and her ten thousand photos, lost, of fire and furious light.” She recalls that it happened on Ash Wednesday, thousands walking the streets of Toronto “marked with the sign of the cross.” Again, obliquely, Jesus is present, an uncomfortable juxtaposition. Christ and crisis, side by side.
As a child Natalie had once heard Gurney Gunther preach about “fighting fire with fire,” constrasting “Holy Spirit fire that purifies against hellfire that destroys.” River, her schizoid client, is a pyromaniac who’s already burned up a shed and plans to do worse. Natalie gets twisted up in his malevolence. And there’s Martin’s subtlety again – nudging us to see in that bond between Natalie and River our own kinship with the damaged and the hurting. How different is Natalie from River, really? Gerry discovers that he shares the same last name with his victim, the neighbourhood drunk. How much separates these two characters from one another? The last chapter features a literal conflagration and a whisper of rebirth. The name Natalie, after all, comes from the Latin word for “Christmas Day.”
I can be critical. Friends who raved about The Help were surprised I was blasé about it. I loved Mary Lawson’s first book, Crow Lake; I found her second, The Other Side of the Bridge, predictable and disappointing. But when I read a thoughtful novel like A Blessed Snarl, I simply stand and applaud. I might even be tempted to call Martin’s accomplishment anointed.