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Newfie novel avoids politics -- and apostrophes

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Despite the title, this is not a story about politics.

Rather, this compelling literary novel imagines the restless life of Henry Hayward, an introspective but talkative Newfoundlander.

The only politics involve some grousing about his province's joining Canada more than six decades ago, without which no Newfoundland tale would be complete.

As the novel begins, Hayward's girlfriend leaves him and he signs on as a civilian contractor working for the Canadian military in Afghanistan.

There, the death of a comrade unmoors him and fills him with guilt that follows him home to St. John's and on several stays in the oil patch in Alberta, a second home for many Newfoundlanders.

Hayward begins taking greater physical and emotional risks, but he remains uncertain of many aspects of life, including his nickname.

"You're not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere," explains the soldier who dubs him Minister Without Portfolio.

Hayward disagrees. "It means I have no purpose and no moral compass."

A friend offers an alternative: "It means you're so capable you're to oversee everything."

Blundering between these poles, Hayward tries to rebuild his life on the Rock by restoring a house with a complicated and contested history, making it a new home for his friend's pregnant widow.

"Like a lot of Newfoundlanders, though, he pictured an acre of land in his head that was his land. The picture has no location, it's a floating acre with a perforated edge like a postage stamp that hovers slightly above the land, though there is, of course, a view of the Atlantic."

This is Newfoundlander Winter's seventh work of fiction; many have been nominated for literary awards.

He describes his most recent, The Death of Donna Whalen, published in 2010, as "a work of documentary fiction and not a re-creation of fact," although it is based on a real homicide.

An author's note in Minister Without Portfolio suggests Winter's rejection of quotation marks and apostrophes, and his rationing of question marks, has occasioned some criticism from readers, perhaps including some who expected more true-crime storytelling and less literary creation in The Death of Donna Whalen.

Listing words appearing without apostrophes in Minister Without Portfolio, such as arent and couldnt, Winter says, "This is intentional. Please don't send letters to the copy editor."

The stripped-down spelling emphasizes his abrupt writing style, enacting the unpredictable and wrenching shifts in his characters' lives.

One chapter begins, "How would he do this. Who was she to him. What did he need and what did she need. Do we need people. Parents, offspring, census reports. Marry her."

As other reviewers have noted, there is a Hemingwayesque cast to Winter's prose.

For example, Hayward observes a jogger and thinks of Afghanistan.

"Henry had seen soldiers in the army with the same fixed concentration and they were good at killing many enemy and recovering too from killing the innocent that were only driving suspiciously."

But Winter also uncorks the odd 150-word sentence. One beautiful example summarizes the history of Newfoundland, a topic on which Hemingway apparently had little to say.

Parents, offspring, census reports, plus memorable writing: Who needs a portfolio?


Duncan McMonagle teaches journalism at Red River College.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 A1

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