Minister Without Portfolio
By Michael Winter
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin) 2013
330 pages; $30
In political terms, a minister without portfolio is a cabinet member who is not assigned a specific department. (It was common in Newfoundland politics when the government was trying to balance the Catholic and Protestant interests.) The position comes with voting rights but no particular responsibilities.
Minister without Portfolio, by Michael Winter
Henry Hayward, the protagonist of Michael Winter’s latest novel, is given this nickname by one of his friends. In a sense it’s a reference to Henry’s lack of family. The other guys — John Hynes, Tender Morris, Rick Tobin — are either married, or planning to be, and Henry doesn’t even have a girlfriend. He’s a bit adrift, even unmoored, and this is by character as well as circumstance.
Henry, John and Rick are tradespeople, working construction at Bull Arm or in Albertan mining camps, often on projects initiated by Rick. (One of the many pleasures of this novel is Winter’s description of the kinds of jobs they do, like the practical yet expressive depiction of dynamiting land for a subdivision—it feels both hands on and elegiac).
When Rick gets a contract with the military base in Afghanistan, Henry and John sign on, joining Tender, who has enlisted and is already stationed there. It’s a renegade environment, too intense, too daredevil. An accident is waiting to happen and when it does, Tender is killed and Henry holds himself responsible.
Back in St. John’s he meets, and is briefly involved with, Tender’s girlfriend Martha. Quickly he starts working out west again, but he is soon involved in another incident. It’s less tragic, but Henry feels jinxed. The best thing he can do is stay away from people.
This brings him to Tender’s house in Renews (the apt place name has been noted — if it didn’t already exist, Winter would have invented it; look how “Hayward” suggests both “wayward” and “haywire”). Well, it belonged to Tender, inherited through an aunt, but he never lived there. Nobody has, for years, and it’s in ramshackle repair. But Henry decides he will fix it up. First, though, he needs to buy it.
Another of the strengths of this book is the way Winter writes about living in rural Newfoundland. It is steeped in authenticity (all the settings are, even Frankfurt airport) and it’s not romantic. The ocean is full of whales, but they might just tip your boat over. The outport is populated by people who can turn a hand to just about anything, but they might also be at each other’s throats over some issue. Like who really owns Tender’s house, for instance.
At the same time, the place has incredible pull. Henry feels it. And one of his neighbours, “the American,” was rerouted to St. John’s on 9/11 and so loved what he found he bought a house and came back every year. All of the community, really, very much wants to be living there, even if it means that some of their family has to trek back and forth to Alberta for them to do that.
This is a sensual book, in that Henry relates to the world very physically, whether he’s wiring a house or jigging for cod. He tries to stay out of his head, which is cluttered with regrets and bad memories, though that isn’t always possible. He wants to be smart, to do good, though he drives himself, again and again, into tangly, brink-of-disaster situations. He often confesses, or apologizes, by saying, “I wasn’t thinking. … I was tired and solving a problem and I wasn’t thinking.”
Winter has structured the book in two parts, with very short chapters, which are often composed by very short sentences. His craftsmanship is so unfussy and straightforward the power and poetry of it kind of sneak up on the reader:
It was a beautiful evening. He decided to row out to the motorboats. One or two of the boats had sounders and the other boats kept an eye on this technology and the sounders found the caplin which the cod were feeding on. The men were gutting the fish over the side and seagulls left their high-tide perches and wheeled in to grab the clots of stomach and intestine. All day long, from the shore, you saw the glint of fibreglass hulls and the whales spouting and the seagulls turning with one black wing high in the air, all circling around, deep below, the carpets of caplin.
If this is the place of Henry’s possible redemption, he will need to take care. And possibly, simply, learn how to care.
Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor
of The Newfoundland Quarterly.
Her column returns April 12.