Transpose Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure
to New Brunswick's rugged Miramichi River. Surround Job with loose fists, malicious boots, and cold, gallon wine. Invite the Macbeths over for drinks. Add a lame dog named Scupper Pit and you've got the raw ingredients of David Adams Richards's Mercy Among the Children
. Set in an isolated, wind-besieged house with bullet holes in the tarpaper walls, Richards's novel wonders-- pointedly, beautifully--whether goodness is merely a luxury.
At the age of 12, having borne more suffering in his child's body than any adult should endure, Sydney Henderson vows never to harm another human soul. Turning his back on the violent alcoholism of his upbringing, self-educated Sydney wins the honest respect of the beautiful Elly and the children they bear. Honest respect, however, is rarely a match for fear and base human opportunism. Manipulated, attacked, and abused by a small community eager for a scapegoat, Sydney loses his job, the health of his wife, and, most importantly, the respect of his son Lyle. "There is no worse flaw in man's character," Richards knows, "than that of wanting to belong."
The superb, controlled, and unapologetic Mercy Among the Children is nothing less than an inquiry into human strength. Richards uses the crack of ribs on a frigid night to remind us of the opportunistic populism of much so- called morality. Mercy, which shared Canada's premier fiction award, the Giller Prize, with Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost, combines the hound dog's attention to locale of fellow Maritimer Alistair MacLeod with the quotidian insight of countryman Timothy Findley's The Wars, especially its reminder that the emotions behind war also drive fights over who should scrub the dinner dishes. --Darryl Whetter
From Publishers Weekly
Unrecognized yet in the States, Canadian author Richards should win new readers here with this stark and affecting novel. A working man living in a shack in the "Stumps," an area of New Brunswick dependent on timber and tourism, Sydney Henderson has the unfortunate knack of arousing hostility among his neighbors by the unconscious display of his virtues. As a child, he was beaten by his father, sexually abused by his priest and once nearly killed a playmate. Out of such experiences he has forged a Tolstoyan moral credo, educating himself in literature and art and refusing to meet violence with violence. When Sydney marries Elly Brown, who is judged too beautiful to be matched with the town's poverty-stricken outcast, the scapegoating gets worse. Rebuffed by Elly when he attempts to rape her, a vindictive Stumps resident joins a scheme that eventually causes Sydney to be blamed for crimes he hasn't committed, including manslaughter and child abuse. The novel is narrated by Sydney's son, Lyle, who, in opposition to his father's stoic pacifism, craves revenge. In trying to exact it, he becomes feared, but is inwardly polluted. Worse, he injures those he loves most. The dogged narration takes some time to acquire dramatic tension, but eventually its unflagging rhythm becomes addictive. Though some readers may recoil from the book's frank depiction of pervasive poverty, Richards shows how powerfully the novel can operate as a mode of moral exploration a fact sometimes forgotten in the age of postmodern irony. (Oct.)Forecast: Richards's novel won Canada's 2000 Giller Award (shared with Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost), and critical attention should give it a boost here, too. Arcade is ordering a 35,000-copy first printing and sending Richards on a four-city author tour.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.