Three military suicides in the span of one week last November put Canadians on notice that whatever wars we thought we were done with are still violently with us. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as a host of other physical injuries, have been forced out of service on early medical discharges, effectively denying them their pensions. A hard truth, this collective inability to care for our soldiers at home. Such is the moment informing Michael Winter’s novel, Minister Without Portfolio, a penetrating exploration of contemporary postwar life that contemplates the entanglements of personal obligation amidst crumbling, unreliable national foundations.
Winter’s protagonist, Henry Hayward, is in retreat from a forlorn, and perhaps formulaic, Newfoundland tableau (a dirty harbour, dingy bars and a suggestively named ex, Nora Power). In an effort to escape and live the “dangerous life” that Nora vaguely craved, Henry takes up work as a civilian contractor in Afghanistan. Kabul is a paradoxically safe place for him, offering much more than Atlantic Canada ever could: health, dental, life insurance, a Sig Sauer automatic pistol. In this mobilized landscape of hometown transplants, Henry feels protected.
But then there is a roadside, an inadequately armoured jeep, a suicide bomber—these are the painfully familiar tropes that converge upon Henry as he witnesses the brutal death one of his protectors, reservist Tender Morris (a name that makes the indurate experiences of modern warfare that much more emphatic). Tender, the high school hockey goalie, Tender, the tattooed literatus, Tender the devoted nephew, Tender the lover. It is the interruption of these many versions of Tender, demonstrably felt by Henry and the small coastal community of Renews, Newfoundland, that provides the emotional impetus of Winter’s novel. Tender’s life is a potent absence, a reminder of a nation ill prepared and ill equipped to contend with the local insecurities born of a politics of security.
Like the best writers on war, Winter parses institutional rhetoric from the events it purports to honour. The prefab words of defence ministers and prime ministers who extend “thoughts and prayers” to the family of “a brave soldier who died due to injuries sustained in Afghanistan” ring especially hollow through the author’s shrewd juxtapositions: “Tender Morris was killed because of a washing machine timer, a cell phone and a garage door opener. Tender Morris was killed because his coffee holder was empty of a Sig Sauer 9-mm pistol.”
Quotidian objects accumulate meanings they ought never to have; the stuff of domestic comfort, of middle-class complacency, is here transformed into a new rhetoric, visceral and honest. It is a prose that makes its readers productively uncomfortable.
And yet, at its heart, Minister Without Portfolio is a story about rebuilding. Henry returns from Afghanistan even more broken than when he left, knowing he is deeply complicit in the events surrounding Tender’s death. But there is a house in Renews, a shell—dilapidated, cold, abandoned—that Tender had inherited from his aunt and that Henry means to rebuild. The home-as-self metaphor is not an especially new addition to the literary canon, the idea being that the physical structure becomes a measure of one’s psychological foundations and fissures. We see this in narratives as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. But whereas such symbolic enterprises are often primarily geared toward the individual privations of self, Winter’s emotional architectonics point in a decidedly different direction.
That is to say, the rebuilding of Tender’s house, for Henry, is more about reimagining one’s responsibility toward others—toward a diminishing coastal town for whom bleak economic necessities scatter its citizens across the world and, more specifically, to a widowed partner, Martha, whose mourning painfully mixes with the demands and fears of impending motherhood: “he would be fostering love, creating something that was not his own, but marshalling up an inner strength to help what existed outside of himself.” It is a heroism of reservations and hesitations that Henry discovers.
Much of the novel blazes with emotional precision. Nowhere is this clearer than in its scenic pauses—when the oceanic world overwhelms Henry with uneasy symbolism and deeply lyrical naturalism. When Henry fishes, humpbacks dive beneath his dory, and we are never quite sure if they are playing or lurking. On the same trip, a gutted fish pulses with tremors, “righted itself and slowly swam away, its head pointing into the depths with deliberation, and descended into the dark.” Obvious parallels aside, Winter is not Hemingway, and Henry is not Nick Adams. Here the natural world persistently refuses the psychological respite it might promise in other works.
Truth be told, the story of Henry’s gradual absorption into Newfoundland and Martha’s life is not a risky literary venture. Readers may find that Henry’s transition into ethical maturity, from urban wanderer to rural anchor, feels patently done. However, Winter rescues his novel from a stale narrative arc of moral growth by doing what regionalist fiction does best: imagining the complexity of a small community. Renews distinguishes itself not merely through a vibrant cast of characters (although there is that), but through a refusal to simplistically cohere. Motivations conflict. Resentments ebb and flow. Stories diverge. We are not, as readers, aggressively tied to Henry’s perspective; Winter pushes through the sort of singular consciousness that would overwhelm a lesser novel and instead offers us glimpses into the many competing desires that inevitably comprise a rich social space.
The novel does sometimes wander too far in its own metaphorical excursions. Henry’s revelations (and there are a lot of them) can feel either artificial—“Martha was the house of Tender Morris. Of course”—or laboriously gnomic: “Let yourself be humbled by the experiences people have been having for thousands of years.” Now, this is a relatively small gripe, because such moments may actually be a consequence of a protagonist who longs to commit himself to a place and its people, and thus sincerely overcommits himself to the language of responsibility. Still, readers need authors as talented as Winter to protect their characters from the occasional bromidic interlude.
Even so, Minister Without Portfolio succeeds because it is a story that, ultimately, will not leave you alone. It is a mindful yet needling friend, caring and careful, always meticulous in its inquiry into the politics of post-war obligation.
How do we rebuild the lives of others without trespassing upon those lives? How do we recreate accountability in the midst of its loss? These questions rattle and knock throughout Winter’s narrative, questions that do not go gentle in the answering but stick, stubbornly, like a warped window pane in the house of fiction.