Devout, depraved and complex characters drive Johnston novel

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By Rosalie MacEachern

For The News

Much is conveyed in the title “Son of a Certain Woman” (Knopf Canada, $32 hardcover) but it still only a hint of what Newfoundland novelist Wayne Johnston has in store for readers in his newest book.

Johnston, born and raised in St. John’s, garnered early acclaim for his first best-selling novel, “The Divine Ryans” in 1990. He has followed up with such best-sellers as “The Custodian of Paradise,” “The Navigator of New York” and “Colony of Unrequited Dreams.” The latter, a novel centred on controversial Newfoundland politician Joey Smallwood, appeared a few years after Smallwood’s death and generated its own controversy with many questioning whether it was fair, or even right, to write a novel about an historical figure, particularly one of such recent vintage. For many the real fly in the ointment was the prominence of Sheila Fielding, a character who probably did not exist in Smallwood’s life. (Johnston, in what appears to be an attempt to have it both ways, points out there were historical rumours of such a woman, but he was unaware of them when he wrote his book.)

Suffice to say Johnston is undeterred by controversy and it is just as well given his latest offering because he has generated more. Protagonist Percy James is challenged from birth by a huge, vividly coloured birthmark and oversized extremities, physical characteristics which some attribute to the circumstances of his birth. His father abandoned his mother, Penelope, before Percy was born and she is reportedly lusted after by every male in St. John’s, including her sex-crazed son. By the time he is a teenager, Percy is established as an outcast but, paradoxically, an outcast with privileges which tend to add directly and indirectly to his burden.

Beautiful Penelope, like her unattractive son, is isolated, smart and profane. A loving, protective and unusually candid mother to Percy, she has two complex relationships which include sex, one with her absconded husband’s sister and the other with an aging teacher who boards with the family and owes his livelihood to the pleasure of the church. She is also employed by the church, to do clerical work from her home where she also drinks, smokes, plays cards and dances with her lovers. Most germane to the story is the fact that it is the 1950s and Percy and Penelope live in the Mount which is the Catholic heart of the city, in the long shadow of school and cathedral.

With one poignant detail after another, Johnston creates a memorable neighbourhood where people spy, not just over fences, but from high windows with binoculars and it is hard to tell the devout from the depraved. His characters are complex, in the way all good characters must be but it is, nonetheless, an extravagant tale, equally empathetic and creepy, as well as being riotously funny in places.

Dramatic by nature and accustomed to being shunned, Percy responds to any attention directed his way. Provided with a captive audience, he conducts his own interpretation of the traditional Newfoundland blessing of the fleet. His obsession with sex gets a bit tiring but possibly all obsessions do. That his mother is the object of all his desire is profoundly twisted but strangely pragmatic as Percy perceives her sympathy for him to have no bounds.

It is questionable how successful Johnston’s post-publication efforts to downplay the element of incest have been. He has accused the media of focusing on that taboo at the expense of the rest of the book. It is hard to imagine he thought the focus might be anywhere else, though “Son of a Certain Woman” is about the heavy hand of the church brought to bear against a non-conformist mother and her son. It is also rife with religious satire and is, to repeat, an extravagant tale, never more so than in the final chapter which knows no excess.

Organizations: Knopf Canada

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Smallwood, New York

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