David Adams Richards has long been a wizard at conjuring tragic scenarios that address topical social problems in all their gory complexity. He is unafraid of challenging the reader’s prejudices or slicing through any delusions we might have about what makes us tick. In Principles to Live By (2016), for example, he pairs the brutal vicissitudes of a foster care system run by self-righteous and self-interested bureaucrats with the immense tragedy of genocide in Rwanda. Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul (2011) takes off from the death of a young Mi’kmaq man to explore racism and politics on a New Brunswick reserve.
His new novel, published only two years after his last, features a page-turning plot, the full life of a memorable character, and a provocative exploration of a fundamental concern in today’s media-driven world: our rush to judgement and our urge to scapegoat. Sadly, it’s marred by an intrusive narrator, occasional sloppy writing, and the sizable chip on the author’s shoulder. If only Richards trusted the power of his stories and the imaginative abilities of his readers.
The eponymous heroine of Mary Cyr, plucked from a brief passage in Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul, is the free-wheeling scion of a family that owns large swaths of New Brunswick. Like Incidents, the plot of Mary Cyr turns on a murder. But this time the murder is no mystery.
Mary has travelled to Mexico hoping to atone for a fatal cave-in at a coal mine partly owned by her family. When the book opens, the Cyrs’ venal Mexican partners have called off the search for survivors, since further investigation might reveal that those same partners pocketed the millions sent by the Cyrs for safety improvements. Thirteen trapped miners are still alive, however, and the thirteen-year-old son of one of them has an audio tape that proves it.
After the body of that adolescent is discovered in Mary’s hotel room, she is jailed. An astute New Brunswick policeman (John Delano, the protagonist of Principles to Live By), sent by the family, uncovers evidence of her innocence, but the authorities are unmoved. Mary has been framed to divert attention from those who are truly criminal.
Richards then ingeniously spins what might have been the tale of a trusting Canadian, caught in a web of Mexican corruption, into a grand parable of contemporary scapegoating. While Mary sits in a dank jail cell, the gossipy globalized press whips up a whirlwind against her. Her “crime” is spread across the world’s front pages; she is pilloried by commentators on the CBC and BBC, every last detail of her behaviour over decades trotted out and twisted to paint her as uncaring and unhinged. As the narrator puts it, “People…only need an excuse to be outraged; they need it to satisfy the famine in their lives.”
In much of Richards’s fiction the victims of tragedies wreak further devastation before finding some solace in faith and forgiveness. The heroism of his protagonists lies not in their deeds, but in the spiritual resources they muster to face their failures and go on living. In Crimes Against My Brother (2014), for example, mean-spirited gossip following accidental deaths drives three cousins to betray the people they most love. Yet an unshakable integrity and a return to religion make reconciliation possible for two of them. In Principles John Delano makes enemies of all around him after not saving a Canadian family in Rwanda, then finds spiritual succor in the search for the surviving son of that family and his own lost son.
Mary Cyr’s journey is similar, no matter that she is a multi-millionaire heiress. A headstrong woman, unwilling to toe the genteel family line, she is as much of a misfit in her world as the poor cousins in Crimes or the dock worker wrongly accused of murder in Incidents. In fact, wealth only fattens her up for scapegoating, since the rich are considered fair game for our knee-jerk urge to dish dirt. Richards skillfully pokes holes in such prejudice, showing the Cyrs to be much like everybody else, doing the best they can with the hands they’ve been dealt.
Religion comforts Mary as she faces the demonstrators and cameras that gather daily outside her barred window. Generous and kind to her cellmates, she forgives her immediate tormentors, but offers no pardon to the many who did her wrong in the past: the relatives who ostracized her for being the child of a British war bride, the stepmother who practiced an ambivalent semblance of love, the Dutch friend of the family who saddled the Cyrs with the Mexican mine, his son who won his university post by publishing articles attacking her and her family, the bored “Toronto girls” who taunted her beloved cousin, the Toronto writer-boyfriend who dumped her after not winning a literary prize set up by her grandfather, the media who hounded her after the accidental death of her handicapped son, and more.
Most memorable of these riveting flashbacks is her brutally believable seduction by a smarmy teacher who claims to be a champion of activism and women’s rights, yet impregnates her at age fifteen. “People mistake activism for morality,” she wrote to John Delano. “And are disgusted by morality that shows activism for what it really is.” But Mary is no willing martyr. We root for her not only because she is innocent, but because of her steadfast refusal to submit and her equally steadfast quest to get even.
Fearlessness and wiles—and a bottomless chequebook—have seen Mary through many tribulations and allowed for settling quite a few accounts. Against the nearly Biblical media firestorm, however, they are powerless. Not only does her trial-by-media overshadow the fact that thirteen miners are dead or dying, it gives nearly everyone involved the irresistible chance for personal aggrandizement, especially the activists, journalists, and commentators who keep the scandal mill running. Nevertheless, several of Mary’s antagonists grapple with mixed feelings as they feed the flames. Empathy and envy, bigotry and tolerance do epic battle in their hearts, leading to an operatic finale.
I mentioned the chip on Richards’s shoulder. His narrators often brim with resentment, are convinced they have never been given their due, feel scorned for their faith or their poverty. Mary sometimes carries this torch: “I bet you if they ever had a truly great writer there,” she says, “they would scorn him, and ridicule his greatest books. And lie about him.”
But it’s the omniscient narrator who voices the author’s derision in Mary Cyr. He elbows Mary aside to repeatedly castigate progressive intellectuals as self-righteous fools. And that’s when the novel falters. “They went on…being outraged at the world that held people like them back,” he writes of young Mary’s Toronto friends. “They were part of the central casting of a new stratagem of unease. They were forever adopting the correct posture. They in the end never freed anyone, simply themselves from any deep obligation.”
And after Mary is jailed: “The men, of course—those who believed in equality, and gender parity—all those things they were always taught to agree to and accept…did not think that their glee at her demise was anything more than appropriate. For all of them most of their lives existed to do what they had been taught, to create and destroy scapegoats.”
His skewering of lefties hits the mark, but is so oft-repeated it grows tiresome. The narrator’s penchant for spelling out every intention also stifles the reader’s imagination, paradoxically, leaving us to argue with his interpretation, if not his political opinions. The unnamed narrator becomes, in effect, a character whose omniscience is hard to trust.
His treatment of the setting will pose additional difficulties for some readers. Richards depicts the corrupt exercise of power with unerring accuracy and conveys a Catholic (though not specifically Mexican) worldview with compassion. Yet he gives some people names no Mexican would recognize (“Erappo” or “Gidgit”), and no one eats anything resembling Mexican food. The coal mine somehow appears in a town inhabited by Maya and surrounded by jungle, though that puts it three thousand kilometres away from the sea it supposedly borders and just as far from Mexico’s coal deposits.
Then there is his awful Spanish. Nearly every page of the Mexico chapters contains a line of Spanish dialogue which is repeated in English. Nine times out of ten the Spanish is wrong: often spelled incorrectly, and sometimes embarrassingly, howlingly mistaken. For example, an underworld boss supposedly says of the imprisoned Mary, “It is important that the stakes for her become very high.” The ungrammatical Spanish actually reads, “It is important to her that the pointy fence posts become very tall.”
The English too suffers at times from typos, garbled syntax, inconsistent style, and confusing shifts in point of view. Some of the narrator’s statements read like the author’s notes to himself or they explain what the reader has already grasped. I can only wonder if the book was rushed into print, or if Richards refused to allow it to be edited.
David Adams Richards is an iconoclast. The spark of his impressive creativity and productivity may well come from the many axes he has to grind. Now that he is a senator representing New Brunswick, it seems only fitting that he recently resigned from the “independent” senators group in order to be even more independent. At his best, when he gets out of his own way, his writing is inspired. And, despite its flaws, Mary Cyr is a wonderful yarn offering much wisdom. But when his resentments get the better of him, the objects of his ire can turn into caricatures, and his overwrought indignation can sideline the story. Then, no matter how compelling the tale or how powerful the message, sticking with him to the end is a challenge.