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The latest from Michael Crummey

Brad Dunne

The Adversary

Michael Crummey

Knopf Canada

336 pages, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

In his 2014 novel, Sweetland, Michael Crummey describes a Newfoundlander living in Alberta who sends “serious” books home to her mother, Queenie, trying to rehabilitate her lowbrow taste to little avail: “Half the books supposedly set in Newfoundland were nowhere Queenie recognized and she felt insulted by their claim on her life. They all sounds like they was written by townies, she liked to say.” Queenie may very well be referring to Crummey’s own award-winning Galore, a magical realist novel set in the fictional outport of Paradise Deep, where a whale beaches itself and regurgitates an albino man named Judah who is somehow still alive. Was Crummey having fun here with his reputation as one of the province’s most renowned chroniclers of rural or, more specifically, outport life? Or was he working through some discomfort with that reputation?

Crummey is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to Newfoundland’s binary cultural divide. He isn’t a “townie,” someone from the St. John’s area, nor is he a “bayman,” someone from a small coastal community. Instead, he was born and raised in Buchans and in Wabush, mining towns located in the interior of the island and near the Labrador-Quebec border, respectively. Perhaps it is a type of outsider’s perspective that has made him such an astute observer of the Newfoundland experience. As such, Crummey has built a deservedly lauded career by threading the needle between celebrating the province’s culture and succumbing to romanticization. His settings are at once ­beautiful and cruel, much like the misfits trying to carve out lives there.

His most recent novel continues in this vein. The Adversary is, in a small way, a sequel to The Innocents, from 2019. It features two minor characters from that work, the Catholic midwife Mary Oram and the Beadle, a Protestant parish officer who serves the Strapps, a powerful merchant family in Mockbeggar, an eighteenth-century fishing plantation in what is now Bonavista.

Fishing merchants were the de facto and often the de jure ruling class before Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. For nearly 400 years, the island was a “fishocracy,” living and dying by the cod stocks. English merchants, who were mostly Protestant, established operations in St. John’s. They supplied goods, such as food and gear, to smaller merchants in outports along the coasts; these traders then supplied the local fishermen, who were mostly Irish Catholic. Such transactions were based on credit, and at the end of the season, the merchants settled accounts with the fishermen based on their catch. Fishermen often didn’t know the price at which they were being charged for goods at the beginning of the season, and they rarely knew what their fish were worth on the international markets. Many shopkeepers exploited this knowledge gap to maximize their profits, while fishermen either broke even or sunk deeper into debt. Consequently, outports served as the merchants’ fiefdoms. Crummey explores these asymmetrical power dynamics in The Adversary.

Enter the Mockbeggar Plantation.

George Ostertag; Alamy Stock Photo

The novel begins with a wedding that has been long delayed due to plague-driven lockdowns, which may feel painfully familiar to contemporary readers. Abe Strapp is to marry a rival merchant’s fourteen-year-old daughter in a scheme hatched by the Beadle to consolidate the Strapp family’s hold over the Mockbeggar area. Abe, who arrives at his own wedding late and drunk, “was a fright for a child to look upon as a prospective husband, bacon-faced, with a small full mouth that gave him the air of a greedy infant.” But before he can kiss this young bride he’s never met, his sister, known as the Widow, interrupts the nuptials to ­introduce another woman, whom he has allegedly impregnated in a drunken rape.

An old feud between the Widow and her brother forms a black hole at the centre of the novel, destroying anyone unfortunate enough to get sucked into its gravitational pull. The Strapps “were like characters from scripture, ubiquitous and intimate and untouchable.”

Abe, whom the townspeople nickname Not‑Able, is a bore, incapable of the mental acuity required to run his operations. He “had been waiting years to see his father on six men’s shoulders,” so that he might inherit all the privileges of his family’s wealth while delegating all executive duties to the Beadle. He does possess a genius for long-term strategy when it comes to enacting cruel revenge on his enemies. He is a physical coward, however, leaving any bodily conflicts to his cronies.

Crummey’s disdain for Abe is obvious, and the novel suffers for it. In fairness, it is hard not to feel frustrated when examining the role of merchants in Newfoundland’s history, who lived in relative luxury by exploiting those who struggled in abject poverty. It is also easy to see present-day parallels with people like Abe Strapp: trust-fund babies who use their family’s largesse to buy power and indulge their petty grievances while average citizens suffer. (Plague-induced lockdowns may sound familiar to readers, while Abe may bring to mind certain modern politicians with small hands.) Ultimately, instead of representing an authentic villain, Strapp comes across as a punching bag for Crummey to take out his frustrations. He is a caricature far beneath the writer’s talents.

The Widow is the more compelling of the two siblings. Her mother died when she was seven, while giving birth to the brother who would grow up to bully her. She has coped by throwing herself into books, learning everything there is to know about the family trade, only to have her father leave it all to Abe. “All my life I was like a bird in a cage,” the Widow explains, “with objects I desired on every side but could not touch or obtain. It made me want to kill ­something. Or someone.”

She marries a rival merchant, Elias Caines, a generous man who’d “lend his arse and shit through his ribs.” The subsequent rift between her and her father is so severe she doesn’t attend his funeral. And just days after that, Elias dies, leaving the Widow Caines to inherit his fortune, which she uses to begin her revenge on her brother. If the Widow’s plight makes her ­sympathetic in comparison with her brutish sibling, it soon becomes clear that her long-standing resentments have twisted her into a covert version of his overt narcissism. Brother and sister “viewed the world as a glass to their own visage and nothing within their sight was granted a life independent. Every creature beyond themselves existed only to serve their designs and appetites.” And while the Widow is truly a victim of a patriarchal society, Crummey inadvertently perpetuates patriarchal concepts by leveraging two major plot points around her false accusations of rape, a trope that feels tone‑deaf in the wake of #MeToo.

The Beadle completes Mockbeggar’s antagonistic triumvirate: all three despise one another. For his entire life, Abe has “resented the scornful, ascetic man’s claim on him as godfather and namesake, seeing him as an adversary to be mocked and obstructed.” For his part, the Beadle often finds himself shocked by Abe’s “sour cleverness,” which makes him “wish his employer was as buffle-headed and gormless as he once believed.” Nonetheless, the Beadle helps Abe with his moves against his sister. “Am I the adversary?” the Widow asks the Beadle at one point. “Or would that be you?” For all the familial destruction, the Beadle is a disinterested technocrat, content to maintain the status quo.

The Beadle may be a carry-over from The Innocents, but The Adversary lacks that novel’s intimacy. Many of Crummey’s characters throughout his oeuvre benefit from his ability to bear witness to their choices, however misguided they may be, with empathetic curiosity. Yet in The Adversary, Crummey keeps such figures at arm’s length, perhaps uncomfortable gazing into a nihilistic void. This reticence bleeds into other aspects of the book. Crummey seems content to nibble around the edges, dispensing prose in exegesis. As a result, Mockbeggar lacks the vitality that animated Paradise Deep in Galore.

There are times when the novel finds its stride, particularly when Crummey spends time with its minor characters. Most notable are the young brother and sister Solemn and Bride Lambe, whose family is tragically trampled beneath the feud of Abe and the Widow. They befriend a boy who arrives at Mockbeggar as a gypsy thief from England, before becoming an indentured servant to Abe. Their plight ignites Crummey’s pen. “For all three, the water around them was deeper than they had the language to fathom or tell,” he writes. “A kindred acquaintance with suffering that made them feel of a piece.” Unfortunately, these moments aren’t enough to pull The Adversary out of its central trio’s ­miserable vortex.

Brad Dunne is a freelance writer and editor in St. John’s.