When Catastrophe Runs in the Family

What consolations remain, at the end of an award-winning Cape Breton trilogy

Why Men Lie, the final book in the Cape Breton Trilogy, draws Linden MacIntyre’s exploration of trauma and its reverberations to a close. Through chronicling the vicissitudes of two generations of the Gillis and MacAskil families, MacIntyre depicts an array of grim misfortunes ranging from the simple to the complex: blunt sudden catastrophe, prolonged predatory abuse and the sustained, chronic strain of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. The aftermath of these fearful events, and the desperate measures these survivors take to live with their troubled past, often with disastrous results, is the trilogy’s major concern.

The Long Stretch opens the trilogy with cousins John and Sextus Gillis in early middle age, looking back at their turbulent adolescence. As sons of fathers who returned from serving in Holland during World War Two, they remain bewildered as to how the wartime catastrophe that was never fully disclosed sent their fathers to early graves. Their buddy Duncan MacAskil, whose father Angus underwent the same disaster with the two Gillis boys, narrates the sequel, the Giller Prize–winning The Bishop’s Man. Returning to his hometown of Port Hastings as the parish priest, MacAskil recalls his motherless childhood, his father’s erratic behaviour, his exile to South America after reporting suspicions concerning the sexual predation of a highly revered priest and, most of all, his career controlling the damage done by other predators while minimizing the church’s exposure. He knows he is not a victim of trauma, but a witness and an abettor of it. When he fails to recognize that a young man in his parish is tormented by his abuse to the point of suicide, Father MacAskil spirals into an alcoholic pit that lands him in a rehabilitation retreat for broken clergy.

After two books about traumatized men, MacIntyre looks at how trauma affects a woman in Why Men Lie. Effie MacAskil, kid sister of the Bishop’s man, is left behind with an alcoholic, menacing father, whom she fears but also protects when Duncan goes off to the seminary. Exactly what has been inflicted on Effie by her disturbed dad is never entirely clarified, but her strategy to overcome it is clear: a quest for love and protection from a worthy man. That she has been married to and divorced from both John and Sextus Gillis, plus outlived a third partner by her early fifties indicates how unsuccessful this strategy has been. Although she is a brainy red-headed beauty with a doctorate in Gaelic studies and tenure at the University of Toronto, she is anxious and insecure at the prospect of being menopausal and partnerless. It seems almost miraculous to Effie when the worldly, handsome and glamorous J.C. Campbell, whose nickname is Jesus, presents himself as a suitor. One of her gang from back home, J.C. is now stationed in Toronto after a career at the pinnacle of international investigative journalism.

An intense bond quickly develops, allowing Effie and J.C. to share the burdens and secrets of their past and the demands and quandaries of the present. The healing emotional refuge they provide each other seems to prove that—as the Sammy Cahn lyric goes—“love, like youth, is wasted on the young.” In particular, during the summer they return to the Long Stretch together, they believe they have found their own private haven for two.

They would be able to agree that the feelings were exquisite, their compatibility astonishing … The days were spent in exploration, in the awkward merging of divergent memories; long nights and mornings spent in bed, in deep talk and adolescent play, and always subtle curiosity, deft disclosure.

As with other boy-meets-girl plots, a long period of estrangement between the couple occupies the centre of Why Men Lie, when Effie concludes that J.C. is trying to cover up his dalliance with a young prostitute she sees him talking to on Jarvis Street. In the pursuit of the truth about J.C. Campbell, Effie catches herself telling unnecessary lies, and is prompted to reflect on her own willingness to soften the edges of the truth to avoid discomfort.

She is particularly evasive about how she came to lose the manuscript of her second husband’s memoir, “Why Men Lie.” According to Sextus Gillis, this memoir reveals many truths about the two families, including details Effie has entrusted only to him concerning the real or imagined abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. Beyond the lies she knows she is telling, Effie displays the confusion felt by many children raised by disturbed, dangerous parents: she is uncertain of her actual experience. Her vivid but inconclusive reveries float in and out of the narrative in the form of italicized flashbacks, creating a cumulative impression of what happened that is far from definitive. “It’s strange … how after a while what happened and what you imagined or what you dreamed get all mixed up,” says Effie.

After their reconciliation, J.C. recovers “Why Men Lie,” which Sextus immediately feeds to the flames of the ancestral fireplace. Only a short exchange from the manuscript, between Sextus and his father Jack, is revealed: “It doesn’t matter why my brother shot himself … what does it matter the way you are … the way any body is? … Truth isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.”

Given that Why Men Lie is named after this memoir, and that the plot revolves around its loss and recovery, withholding its content feels something like a bait-and-switch for the reader, not only because it fails to deliver something promised, but because it invalidates the very thing—truth itself—toward which the characters and the readers strive. It is as if MacIntyre himself is one of the men who lies, if only by omission, and his failure to provide the explanation for why men lie—or whatever else might provide some comfort if truth is not sufficient—seems slightly like a gimmick, diminishing the story’s moral heft. After the subtle gravitas of The Bishop’s Man this is particularly disappointing.

It is clear by the end of the trilogy that every other attempt to escape the pain of trauma fails. The oceans of alcohol, the endorphins of long distance running, the uplift of prayer and piety, the distraction of womanizing or the bliss of romantic love, the excitement of glamorous careers or the stimulation of intellectual achievement do not prove to be permanent. Even Effie and J.C.’s genuine love is brief, terminated by his violent death.

In the closing scene, when J.C.’s ashes are released over the Atlantic Ocean, Father MacAskil mentions two possible consolations. One is the prospect that we never truly die, but return in converted form through the regeneration of nature. The other takes place while we are still alive, after a profound emotional effort.

Duncan made a brief announcement. “I’m going to open a … seventeen-year-old single malt—so we can properly reflect upon the passing of a good man … who brought us to this place this day, together in so many ways.

It is fitting that the trilogy’s most thoughtful character, after a career devoted to matters of the spirit, should indicate the most healing path available to the bereaved community. Duncan’s simple suggestion that they dedicate a time and place to “properly reflect” on their painful loss shows a caring concern that his friends and family be able to fully acknowledge what has happened and how deep their despair feels. In this final scene, there is a stillness in the gathering, as if their acceptance of sorrow allows them to be at peace. Even when men lie, MacIntyre seems to conclude, they give each other strength by coming together and thinking about their shared condition.