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In this morality tale, renowned Canadian author David Adams Richards has created perhaps the worst character ever set to paper.
The Bard might have known a thing or two about an audience's fascination with evil, but Iago and Lady Macbeth have nothing on Lonnie Sullivan, a character of minor presence but towering influence in Crimes Against My Brother. It is Richards' companion novel to Mercy Among the Children, considered his most accomplished work, which shared the 2000 Giller Prize with Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost.
Richards often writes about his hometown, Miramichi, N.B., presenting universal themes in its poverty and the suffering of its people. Sullivan runs a jack-of-all-trades operation -- a snowplow contract here, a deal on race horses there -- wheeling and dealing all the way, wielding enormous power in a region with few jobs.
It is Sullivan who sends the three main characters, cousins Ian, Evan and Harold, up a mountain in a blizzard to harvest Christmas trees. The boys are stranded for three days -- because Sullivan doesn't report them missing -- and, facing death, they cut their hands to become blood brothers and vow to watch out for one another.
From that point, Richards weaves a complex, heartbreaking tale of how the three betray one another throughout their lives.
But Sullivan's evil doesn't end there. The story has long stretches with no sight of him, then suddenly he'll appear in a cloud of cigar smoke -- like Satan making an entrance. With a whisper in the ear of one of the cousins or a young woman who mesmerizes them, he steers them all toward bad decisions. He lies, manipulates and blackmails, but his most intriguing weapon is his use of gossip.
The malevolence of gossip is a recurring theme throughout Crimes. The townsfolk of Bonny Joyce-Clare's Longing, a fictional stretch along the Miramichi River, turn with breakneck speed against characters who've made bad decisions or simply had bad luck, labelling them thieves or cheats or defective in some way. Through the use of a first-person narrator -- a cousin of the three boys who completed his education and moved away to become an academic -- Richards makes much of the boys' neighbours' and co-workers' strong desire to believe the worst gossip.
At times, it's acknowledged outright that something likely isn't true, but enjoyable to believe -- so what does it matter? Every character in the book, even the very few with relentlessly positive qualities, is harmed by the corrosion of gossip.
The narrator and his students' reactions to his stories about the three boys creates a Greek-chorus effect. But this is a chorus of middle-class university students, thoroughly steeped in their own bigoted views of people like those who live in Miramichi. Instead of guiding the reader to the "correct" reaction to the action, this chorus provides a springboard for readers, repulsing them from the students' opinions and causing them to question their own views of how people like the three boys live, squelching any feelings of superiority the readers may harbour.
And why do these people live the way they live? Why can't they all "better" themselves and leave, as the narrator has? Richards examines the role of coincidence amid much speculation of the existence of God. Is there a universal plan? Do things happen by chance? Can being detained on an errand, thus arriving late for an appointment, change the course of a life?
Were these characters put on Earth just to suffer? For suffer they do. But their suffering is for naught; once out of their most recent mess, they turn on one another, repeating gossip, attributing nefarious motivation to one another while justifying their own bad behaviour.
This is not a tale to renew the reader's faith in humankind.
Universal themes don't drown out the flavour of the Miramichi region. Richards makes the most of the opportunity to take shots at the New Brunswick government's foolish plan to pump millions into a foreign-owned lumber mill without guarantees the jobs would stay in the province.
And he slyly acknowledges that the locals don't always appreciate his sharp portrayal of his hometown. A character is asked to join a book club that studies all the favourite Canadian authors, "but not the author from their own town, who, they decided, wrote such troublesome things and did not really truly understand or represent their values, which were progressive and modern ones best explained by fashionable women or by books from Oprah's Book Club."
Crimes Against My Brother may not be appreciated by Richards' hometown ladies, but fans of his 14 other novels, his plays, poetry and non-fiction will embrace this long-awaited novel. New readers will find it a powerful introduction to his work.
Julie Carl is the Free Press associate editor, reader engagement.