The fiction of David Adams Richards is unmistakable. It has salient features that distinguish his novels and short stories in the same way that a single paragraph can instantly signal a Mordecai Richler. For some critics and readers, this consistency illustrates a deficit of imagination. For others, the predictable recurrence of a signature prose with its stylistic peculiarities and recognizable plot patterns provides an opportunity to explore at greater length the layered intricacies of a flawed and heroic humanity.
The Tragedy of Eva Mott offers readers familiar Richards territory. This latest novel is set mostly in contemporary rural New Brunswick, the Miramichi principally, and filled with ordinary folk fated to be neglected, stereotyped, and derided by outsiders who claim a superior wisdom. Locals and interlopers alike are caught in lethal webs of prevarication and desperate rationalization. In the book’s prologue, the omniscient narrator introduces us to Eva Mott, as well as “her tragedy and the tragedy of those who caused hers,” by quoting from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago: “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”
The characters in The Tragedy of Eva Mott, both major and minor, have riven hearts — the result of betrayals, demonic malice, beatific naïveté, and a changing world. Eva, for example, is tossed about by her bad decisions, her preternatural innocence, her misplaced hopes and loves. As happens not infrequently with Richards characters, she survives and has an epiphany or two. With her once spurned lover, Torrent “Torry” Peterson, Eva is assured at the novel’s end a “fulsome chance at a new life, a new beginning, a new and holy destiny, here as well as in all the world.”
But along the way there is a great deal that’s tragic. As with the proverbial stone thrown into an undisturbed pond, the ripples alter reality — sometimes irreversibly. Eva is at first a bit player, her role peripheral, her life a series of pathetic misunderstandings. As the engaging plot unfolds, however, she moves slowly to centre stage.
The other players in this regional but universal drama are a heady band of misfits, mischievous and maladroit bunglers, calculating brigands, hypocritical self-described luminaries, brave and doomed losers. In other words, they constitute a classic Richards mosaic, as easily identifiable as a Fellini circus. One of them is particularly noxious, influential, and morally corrosive: the American professor Wilbur Dykes is a purveyor of ersatz culture, a proponent of every ideological trend that usurps privilege — save his own. “Dykes himself had come from a well-to-do family in Indiana who made auto parts,” the narrator explains. “He often wore a diamond ring, and gold cufflinks.“ Dykes, who lectures people about “class struggle and religion,” despises Catholicism. In this, he’s not alone. Many bien pensants viscerally hate the Catholic Church, and they find easy allies in their loathing. “The priests have become affected by the age, pretentious social workers, and no longer follow the faith,” one man says. “They were frightened to stand for Christ but using what Christ taught to anoint themselves. They had all become critics of the world instead of defenders of the faith.”
With two standard pillars of moral and intellectual probity compromised — the academy and the church — where do you look for direction? How do you make sense of life’s turmoils? How do you navigate the dangerous waters of human ambition and cupidity? The answer is both simple in its nature and complex in its unfolding: you are good when your heart is good. But this does not mean that those characters whose goodness is blisteringly self-evident — like Torry Peterson or his father or the heroic Byron Raskin — are inured to the seductions of evil. “The best of my characters seek freedom from sin,” Richards has written elsewhere, “They are plagued by sin — sinning themselves and being more sinned against than sinning.”
The author’s standard proposition — that individuals and society are unwound by a lie that breeds even greater lies, entombing all in festering vapours of evil — finds expression in The Tragedy of Eva Mott with mismatched marriages, misplaced hopes, and simple venality. His taste for Dickensian melodrama is in full view in his juxtaposition of Chester and Dexter Raskin, humble titans of industry, with Shane and Mel Stroud, infamous low-lifes. This is an author who delights in upending the customary socio-political axiom that the labourers are enlightened and the entrepreneurs benighted.
When the heart is good, sacrifice is imperative. Richards populates his novels with the misread: men and women whose intentions are misconstrued, whose actions are maligned. The consequences are disastrous. To do good, to persist in acting out of a kenotic love, is sublime heroism, and here Torry Peterson’s selfless love for the flighty and damaged Eva Mott is the cantus firmus around which the polyphony of spiritually estranged, criminally disposed, and intellectually vapid people play their parts. Put another way, Richards probes providential elisions of character and circumstance. Individuals collide and interact in a moral whirligig. It is all rather Shakespearean. And it all unfolds on New Brunswick turf — recognizable by its remoteness, wildness, isolation, and unforgiving beauty.
The inhabitants of this singular landscape are encased in dread, a compulsion or power that drives them to do what is not in their best interests, to allow themselves to become beholden to charismatic leaders and the will of the majority.
An abhorrence of such political management by the arbiters of correct judgment was on ample display in late January, when David Adams Richards spoke in the Senate during the third reading of Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. A sitting senator, he berated the government for courting “ideological manipulation in the name of national purity,” for advocating identity politics at the cost of an independent citizenry, for pitting of ethnicities against one another. “You see, we have gone back to the age of Cicero without even knowing,” he told his colleagues in the Red Chamber. “In that age, scapegoating was considered a blessing and mob action against one person was considered justice. It was Christ actually who taught us that scapegoating was a great lie and pleaded with us by his death never to return to that state.”
Wilbur Dykes, the risible and modish academic whose sway is personally and socially destructive in The Tragedy of Eva Mott, and whose lies are counterpoised with truth bearers like Byron Raskin and the Petersons, is precisely the model of conformist thinking that Richards had in mind when addressing the Senate. Whether in his writing or his public service, Richards is a committed contrarian. He deplores what he considers the complicity of the academy with ideological strategies that undermine commitments to free thinking; he decries the “smirkers” who demean local culture. And he does so relentlessly in this novel.