Something outrageous is going on here. Perse Joyce, the narrator of Wayne Johnston’s powerful new novel, The Son of a Certain Woman, is literally a marked boy—stained purple by birth, with a swollen lower lip, and outsized hands and feet that not only brand him a freak of the town but also make him vulnerable to the taunts of young bullies and the disdain of their elders. But like other disfigured outsiders of literature, his conspicuous biological condition confers on him insight and perspective. So it is that we see all of the world of 1950s Catholic St. John’s through Perse’s sad brown eyes, heavy as that world is with superstition and a fear both engendered and managed by the long insidious reach of the church.
At first one might think we are in the childhood landscape of an Oskar Matzerath or an Owen Meany, but this is Irish St. John’s, after all, and Johnston has an even wider design in mind. Openly borrowing from Ulysses, the author hangs his narrative on the familiar framework of Joyce’s famous novel, that iconic long day’s journey toward affirmation. To make the signposts as clear as Signal Hill on a day without fog, Johnston has made Perse a Joyce. He is the unbaptized, bastard son of delivery guy Jim Joyce whom he has never known. The certain woman who is his voluptuous mother, fortuitously named Penelope, also happens to be the consuming object of his desire. In short, he has issues—as many as a Daedalus or a Bloom, sure, but unique to both his disfigured nature and his repressive time. And whereas June 16 is the organizing temporal frame of Ulysses, June 24 is the structuring principle of The Son of a Certain Woman. It is at once Perse’s birth day and St. John’s Day, the anniversary of the birth of St. John the Baptist after whom the crazy city itself was named. The novel keeps returning to that date to mark Perse’s development, spanning roughly a dozen years through to his turning 15 when, like Molly Bloom in a moment of -climactic ecstasy, Perse will also answer the call to
Perse remembers the past and the indignities he suffered as the innocent he was, but his enforced distance from the social mainstream of youth makes him more reflective and questioning. Besides, he is just plain smart. We see what he does, of course, but also so much more. We well know how years later the once unshakeable rigidity of the church yielded in the face of revelations of physical and sexual abuse; how the Christian Brothers, who run Perse’s school, clothed in piety and power, were exposed as chronic sexual predators after years of being protected from discovery. To be sure, Johnston relies on our having such knowledge, for it lends Perse’s observations a killingly heavy irony and gives the novel an added layer of significance—like reading history backwards. The constellation of sex, sadism and power that hovers over the St. John’s of the 1950s ultimately makes perfect sense.
It is pretty obvious that Johnston aims to do for St. John’s what Joyce did for Dublin—animate it fully as a complex character, not merely a backdrop for his human creations. The city is vital to the formation of identity. Its long colonial history, maddening geography and confounding weather have as much to do with Perse’s destiny as his stained DNA. Itself a character, the city breeds many others who knock about its windy streets and live in their weird, self-absorbed isolation. This is as true of the lowliest, such as Sister Mary Aggie, former nun and certified mental case who shares a bizarre kinship with Perse, as it is of the most highly regarded, such as the school principal, Augustine McHugh, who practises his own perverse dominance, spying on Perse and his family, lusting after Penelope, and god-knows-what else he might be up to if this were another novel.
Perse’s world is painfully small, bounded by about five blocks from where he rarely wanders, but the space in which he traverses adolescence is a rich microcosm of the whole social nexus. The novel reasserts an old binary—with the repressive, flesh-denying, self-mortifying, fear-inducing, hierarchically intimidating Catholic church on the one hand, and the flesh-affirming, non-believing, authority-denouncing rebels of dissent on the other. The reader knows which side he or she is on, and so does Perse, for the most part. You could not very well actively, unashamedly lust after your mother if you were a party to the first part. And his mother, who is madly in love with Perse’s father’s sister, Medina, obviously embraces the non–traditional. Penelope, who is given so many loquacious moments of moral authority throughout the novel, sums up the religious debate best: all you have to do is look at the world to know no one is running it. Hard to argue against that when you look at the St. John’s of the 1950s. No matter how arduously it was resisted, the case for desire had to win. Even the Christian Brothers had to admit it—if in court. And it is in this context that the novel refuses to judge Perse’s desire for his mother, and, in turn, her almost shockingly sympathetic acknowledgement of his needs.
This puts the reader in a curious place—to accept or be creeped out by such needs. This reader went along gleefully for the ride. And it is a well-written, witty and often hilarious one at that—even through the miserable darkness of a Newfoundland decade. Johnston is obviously still working through his own ambivalent relationship to the city that shaped him, even while he chooses to live permanently thousands of kilometres away from its heart. Like Joyce who moved away from but who kept returning to the site of his own formative imagination, Johnston cannot or will not let go of this dirty ol’ town, as we often call it. Appreciative readers would love to know what happens to Perse Joyce when he grows up. That speaks volumes about him and the brilliant novel in which he figures.