Johnston infuses new life into old setting

Joan Sullivan
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The Son of a Certain Woman
by Wayne Johnston
Alfred A. Knopf Canada
$32.00; 448 pages

Percy Joyce was born circa the 1950s in St. John’s on the feast day of its saint. That could be construed as promising good fortune — if so, he could use it.

Percy’s mother, Penelope Joyce, is not married; in fact, rather defiantly so. And he came into the world marked by a cluster of birth defects including port wine stains on his face and body, oversized hands and feet, and a face that “looked like it had been worked on by an abstract tattoo artist.”

Brilliant, well-read, inventive and curious, Percy is aware that people notice him, and know who he is, though his perception of that fame, and his manipulations of it, change with time. And he knows they know his mother.

Penelope is movie-star-beautiful, heedlessly headstrong, and vocal and sexual at a time and in a way that women are supposed to be neither.

Percy is obsessed with her; and, as the book makes clear quickly and explicitly, his sexual imagination is dominated by her. Which only adds to the building sense of crisis — such stories rarely end happily (see “Hamlet,” Act V, etc.).

This book, Wayne Johnston’s 10th, is set in the same time and place as his first, “The Story of Bobby O’Malley.” Percy and Bobby must be about the same age. But Percy is a Bobby seen through a dark, heady, fabulous glass.

There’s a lot, I think, encapsulated by the fact that Bobby’s “Heavy Heart” girls’ high school is, in Percy’s story, properly called “Holy Heart.”

Something in this snaps the kaleidoscope of fictional/non-fictional St. John’s into place. (Sister Celestine is still principal, though.)

And there are other parallels, like the two boys’ responses to being called to a vocation, and the sexually peculiar family arrangements.

But in “Son,” the strangeness, the mysteries and the sensuality is staked higher.

There is more tension than I remember from any other Johnston novel. People here keep secrets that really might destroy them.

St. John’s in the 1950s and 1960s was overseen, figuratively and otherwise, by a Catholic hierarchy. Its influence on the education and social structures was architecturally signalled by the cluster, around “The Mount,” of the Basilica, the archbishop’s residence, two convents, seven schools and assorted ecclesiastical infrastructure.

Percy and his mother live amidst this, at 44 Bonaventure. They have a boarder, Mr. MacDougal, or “Pops,” who teaches chemistry across the street at Brother Rice.

Medina, the sister of Penelope’s absconding fiancé, is a constant presence. She and Penelope love to drink beer (often Pops’ beer), smoke cigarettes and play cards. Medina works part time as a nurse’s aide, and she can’t read or write.

Penelope reads books voraciously: “my mother was an autodidact. Though a grade ten dropout, she could probably have overseen the studies of graduate students in half a dozen disciplines.” She can weave incredible verbal patterns of quotes and rants and wordplay, which resemble Landish Druken’s deliberate malapropisms and puns in “A World Elsewhere.” It can seem a little excessive, but it comes from a writer who lives and breathes language.

Though Penelope has notoriously refused to have Percy baptized, the Catholic powers-that-be have a seemingly protective attitude towards him. The archbishop himself has met Percy, and officially declared that he is not to be tormented.

And Penelope, a freelance typist, is given official parish secretarial work.

But this means they are under scrutiny, particularly from Brother McHugh, principal of Brother Rice.

Although he does not share His Grace’s idea that Percy, born as he was, is destined for some great purpose, McHugh is nonetheless relentless in his interference with their lives. He suspects something.

He has the patience to wait for someone to inadvertently reveal what that is. And if that doesn’t work, he is cruel.

The family, the city, the crisis: these are compacted myths, even characters’ names — Percy, Penelope — are packed with resonance and archetype that Johnston then unwinds and refurls and twists.

He does this with geography, and history and hagiography.

Much of what seems “made up” (no crime in a novel of course) is actually true.

There is, for example, a Saint Drogo, patron of the disfigured after he suffered some physical calamity (though ferociously holy even hitherto, and thought to have the miraculous ability to be in two places at the same time, though his last 20 years were famously spent in one very specific site, a cell where no one had to behold him).

“Son” is constructed with layers of authority and fable that builds to an aptly Joyce-ean finish.

 

Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly.

Her column returns Oct. 26.

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