The Last of the Wild Islanders: A Review of Michael Crummey’s Sweetland

by Nicholas Herring

Nicholas Herring has walked over 7,000 kilometres in the past 13 months and still does not know what it is that he knows. He works and lives with dogs in the east end of Toronto.

Sweetland
Doubleday Canada
1 Toronto Street, Unit 300
Toronto, ON M5C 2V6

2014, 322 pp., $32.00, ISBN: 9780385663168


Sweetland, Michael Crummey’s first novel since Galore (2009), marks a return to the hefty kingdom of the narrative, and in many ways, the story he fashions is the logical—and therefore, perhaps, predictable—follow up. Galore, a Márquezian novel, is in my opinion second only to Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief (1999) in terms of the finest to ever come out of Atlantic Canada.

Crummey’s latest work is an impressively prolonged and often exhausting study of grief and ghosts centring around the disintegration of 69-year-old Moses Louis Sweetland, a native descendant of the first settlers of Crummey’s fictionalized Sweetland archipelago. The novel is divided into halves marked by biblical epigraphs. The first, “The King’s Seat,” quotes Isaiah 56:5: “Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name,” and the second, “The Keeper’s House,” quotes Revelations 20:13: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it.” While there can be no doubt that these are the signposts of the novelist’s claim to biblically serious and important literature, they do feel clunky and rather superfluous simply because they do not possess any immediate meaning, nor, truthfully, do they ever.

Sweetland opens with a remembrance that is slow to amalgamate, disorienting, and wonderfully cinematic:

He heard them before he saw them. Voices in the fog, so indistinct he thought they might be imaginary. An auditory hallucination, the mind trying to compensate for a sensory lack. The way a solitary man will start talking to furniture, left alone long enough … The mauze lifted a little at first light and he thought he might be able to pick his way home. Had the island in sight when the mist muffled in, so thick he couldn’t see ten feet past the bow … Jesus fuck, he said.

Such an initiation prepares the reader for so much of what is to follow: fog, indistinctness, memory, hallucinations, solitude, islands, and the eponymous character’s catchphrase, “Jesus fuck,” akin to a Homeric “D’oh!” Despite the engine of his boat, which assigns a vague sense of period, it is the later detail of “two Javex bottles of fresh water” that most capably gives us a contemporary realism far removed from the extraordinary marvels within Galore. The novelistic precedent that comes to mind is the opening passage of Cormac McCarthy’s first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965).The similarities between both equally dim and mystifying beginnings is also telling, for as Galore wears its Gabriel García Márquez influence, Sweetland wears the Tennessee novels of McCarthy.

The contemporary narrative (“Chapter I”) begins a page over with a “government man walking up from the water,” and the scene that follows works as an adroit orientation regarding the details of the “when” in the novel (summer, 2012), the “where” (off the southern coast of Newfoundland), and the “what.” The government has decided upon resettling the inhabitants of Sweetland to the island of Newfoundland, and there are but two holdouts, Loveless and Sweetland, against the deadline of September 1st. We also learn that the protagonist has no immediate kin, that he is single, and that he has scars from the mainland upon his face. The banter the two men share is standard Atlantic-Canadian dialogue that writers like Wayne Johnston, David Adams Richards, and Michael Winter employ, which is to say that it is masculine and clever—the confrontation of opposing forces refusing to address exactly the heart of the matter before them. The conversation is filled with the renunciation of vulnerability and supports the vagaries of personal ambiguity. The following exchange between the government man and Sweetland is a good example of what I am talking about:

“That’s everything,” he said.
“Not much when you lays it out like that.”
“Not enough to tell me why you’re so set against this move.”
“Just contrary, I guess.”
“You’d rather stay with the dead, is that it?”
“A body could do worse for company.”

We also learn two other details, and though they are small, even negligible, they are indicators of what the novel will struggle with. The first is that Sweetland not only possesses a laptop, but that he knows of the existence of Facebook, and the second is that he does not know what the word “eponymous” means. The incongruity between eras speaks volumes about the tension that Crummey has chosen to locate both Sweetland and Sweetland within. Such an authorial blending of curmudgeonry (which can only come with experience) and ignorance (which suggests a newness or uncertainty—certainly innocence) imparts a bedrock of ambiguity. This ambiguity suggests not only that the narrative voice and Crummey’s vision are at odds, but also that by virtue of its very inclusion—for it is well within the realm of possibility that an isolated sixty-nine-year-old might not be familiar with such a word—the author may not have the most respect for this character. Even if this is not the case, what cannot be disputed is that Crummey needlessly embarrasses Sweetland. Consider when the government man asks Sweetland how long his family has inhabited the island:

“Time before time,” Sweetland said and then smiled at himself. “People been fishing here two hundred years or more. I expect my crowd was the first ones on the island.”
“Because it’s eponymous, you mean?”
Sweetland stared blankly.
“It’s named after them. Your family and the island have the same name.”
“Yes,” Sweetland said. “That’s what I mean.”

Rather than amplify any hostility that would presumably exist between the government and the individual, this passage seems solely designed to tutor the reader as to what Sweetland lacks. My qualm, specifically, is that Sweetland’s blank stare makes him seem stupid in a manner that makes me, a witness, feel awkward.

“ … what cannot be disputed is that Crummey needlessly embarrasses Sweetland.”

A successful novel does not require a likeable protagonist or even a particularly intelligent one, but such scenes make the reader’s relationship to the author and his title character peculiar—these moments fume to the surface, and the feeling of being a child helplessly watching a custody battle is difficult to shake. What cannot be disputed is that the book falters when we must heed Sweetland just because his underdog status is stringently enforced by Crummey; it ought to be the reader who makes the choice in such matters.

In response to the notion that the Reverend’s motivations for spending so much time with Jesse might be more than a matter of doing God’s work, Crummey also has another character, Duke Fewer, actually utter this gem of a line: “What’s-his-name Bin Laden thought he was doing that, for chrissakes.” The thought that someone might not be able to recall Osama Bin Laden’s first name in this world, or any post-9/11 world, is a supremely troubling one rife with disquieting implications. Our knowledge of what the residents of Sweetland know and do not know is intended to demonstrate the severity of their isolation. But remoteness, the kind produced by living on an island, does not—and should not—have ignorance as its principal symptom.

We are then introduced to Sweetland’s closest friend, his great-nephew, Jesse (described on the dust jacket as a “complicated youngster”), the one person who, presumably, has some pulse on the island’s elderly killjoy. Crummey, demonstrating his attunement to Sweetland’s male-oriented notions of tradition, writes:

Lank and pale, the boy was, like something soaked too long in water. The purple light making his face look sallow, cadaverous … He had never made peace with the youngster’s name. It sounded fey, feminine, like something off one of those soap operas Sweetland’s mother used to watch.

The boy’s physical description is well written, but the image of the living dead, of Freud’s uncanny, is introduced too early to be appropriately and forcefully threaded into the tapestry of the book. If Jesse appears deceased from the get-go, what are the odds he does not end up dead by book’s end?

As the two head to inspect Sweetland’s snares, Jesse runs onto the stone configuration and yells, “I’m the King of the World!” As irksome as this Titanic reference is—the selection of this movie out of everything committed to celluloid is supremely puzzling—Crummey feels the need to add:

Sweetland allowed he was the only person in Christendom who hadn’t seen that goddamn Titanic movie. Jesse knew the film so intimately he could quote every word of dialogue and sometimes did.

All of this detail is essentially a set-up so that Sweetland can deliver this droll line: “Come on, Your Highness … the day idn’t getting any younger.” Not only is the obviousness of this scene the mark of a greener writer, but Crummey’s need to guide us toward one meaning articulates a distrust for his audience, and frankly, this is a wrong that cannot go unfelt or unrecognized.

A page over, the two come across the helicopter pad the Coast Guard constructed above Fever Rocks, and there is a recollection of Sweetland and Jesse getting into a small argument about what the thing is actually called:

A helipad, Jesse told him it was called.
You’re making that up, Sweetland had said.
Am not.
There’s no such word as hellish pad.
Helipad, Jesse had repeated.

While this is intended to convey that Sweetland is capable of jest and playfulness, I believe Crummey has already spent too much time playing around with misperception at the level of the word. There is yet another scene in the novel’s second half where Sweetland notes the “odd congruity” between the sound of the Fawkes in Guy Fawkes and his nickname for Loveless’s dog, Mr. Fox, who is, in some respects, his Man Friday. However, not one meaningful connection can be made by the reader. Yes, it is true that helipad might sound like hellish pad with the right touch of rhotic accenting, and yes, Fawkes and Fox are homophones, but so what? My sense is that Crummey is trying to complicate our notion of Sweetland as nothing but an irascible old ignoramus and to show that beneath Sweetland’s hardened exterior lies true sweetness (in keeping with his cursed name!), the kind easily curdled by an outdated model of manliness in a fast-paced world; however, Crummey’s efforts here simply do not work.

“Sweetland’s blank stare makes him seem stupid in a manner that makes me, a witness, feel awkward.”

As for the “complicated” aspect of Jesse—aside from the fact that the boy entertains conversations with Sweetland’s long-dead brother, Hollis, and plummets into masturbatory sessions in front of the television, which are acts that would have been suitable enough—Crummey wades into yet another obvious selection by assigning Jesse autism. Unfortunately, this portrayal lacks any true ability to render this boy justly three-dimensional. Do not get me wrong, autism is worthy of examination, but not in a novel like Sweetland. (This choice strikes me as a poor one simply because there seems to be a new book about a kid with autism every week in much the same manner that novels about intersex characters are currently en vogue—which really means that these narratives, regardless of quality, retail well.) Crummey writes that Jesse:

still insisted on taking off every stitch of clothes just to take a piss … couldn’t be counted on to flush the toilet, but he could lecture a body on a hundred different topics—aircraft, the digestive system, moon landings, Mount Everest, ping-pong, whales.

Reflecting on his first sense of the boy, Crummey imparts that Sweetland:

couldn’t say now if he’d sensed something wrong with Jesse even then, or if it was only in retrospect there seemed an unnatural distance in the infant’s eyes. The boy seeming to look out on the world from the far end of a tunnel.

Rather than trust his reader with the liberty of construing what it is he is after (an easy enough task at this point), Crummey gives in to the urge to have Sweetland and his niece, Clara, point us in the exact direction of what ails Jesse:

“Have they got a name for it yet?” he asked.
“For what?”
“Whatever is wrong with the youngster.”
“There’s a spectrum,” she said.

Crummey is apt enough to describe how silly Clara feels pronouncing the word “spectrum,” which spares her a tad from the endemic unawareness. And as soon as she finds the scene embarrassing, Crummey ought to end it. But, just in case we are unable to piece together what is going on here, Crummey actually inserts this specification:

He’d always been a champion speller. Near-photographic memory, according to the Reverend. A generation ago, the Reverend said, they’d have called the boy an idiot savant.

If “idiot savant” is a term that belongs to previous generations, then we thankfully have a series of synonyms uttered by none other than Sweetland—directly at Jesse nonetheless—to reinforce how anachronistic his notions are: “You’re retarded, is it? Antisocial? Codependent? Mentally unstable? Psychopathic?” Which is not to say that this relationship is not (as always with Crummey) well written. It is just that these moments cannot exist solely for themselves; instead, they always have to smack us with severe meaning or foreshadow what is to come. For example, consider:

The pyjamas made him look hopelessly vulnerable in his bed, his limbs like pale shoots growing out of the fabric, the smooth expanse of his belly exposed. The little well of the navel a thimbleful of darkness. Jesse’s face was turned toward the door but angled unnaturally up toward the headboard. He looked like he’d fallen from a height, dropped from a rooftop or a headland and come to rest in that mangled posture.

The turn of phrase “a thimbleful of darkness” is wonderful, but it is the likening of Jesse’s repose to a tumbled corpse that imposes foreshadowing where it does not belong. The words “cadaverous,” “sallow,” and “pale” from Jesse’s initial textual description are too at-the-ready. Therefore, the connection Crummey wants us to make is too superficial to take root. If a case can be made for its presence here and now, it only detracts from the warmth that precedes.

The other troubling aspect to Sweetland is that the presentation of sexuality bears a kind of pessimism—the kind George Orwell highlights in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale” wherein women either die or marry—that belongs among the English, male poets of the early 20th century and not among 21st century Canadian novels. Crummey’s device of twinned narratives, one of remembrance and one of present action, is largely a successful choice because it allows for a nice sequence of oscillations, of peaks and valleys, that also allow the reader to distinguish meaning. However, the recollections only further Crummey’s cynicism about how people express and reveal themselves through the body.

The other troubling aspect to Sweetland is that the presentation of sexuality bears a kind of pessimism … 

The opening voices in the fog, which turn out to be a congregation of Sri Lankans adrift in a lifeboat in 1966, exist to reveal that Sweetland’s sister, Ruthie, actually has sexual desires and—god forbid—is able to act upon them. That she does so with the Reverend has direct echoes of a former Crummey character, Father Phelan, who was more interestingly rendered in Galore precisely because everybody acknowledges his drinking and whoring. (It’s interesting that that which is out in the open in Galore is more compelling than that which is submerged in Sweetland.) On his way to the church where a dead Sri Lankan is being watched over by Ruthie, Sweetland discovers the Reverend sneaking away from the room behind the altar and into the darkness, and Sweetland immediately condemns his sister, choosing to never speak to her again. It’s no surprise that she dies with the issue of the perceived impropriety of her sexuality unresolved. Why is she allowed to be treated this way? This is a rather difficult question, and I am not entirely certain that Sweetland possesses the answer.

“ … that belongs among the English, male poets of the early 20th century and not among 21st century Canadian novels.”

The question becomes even more troublesome when one considers that the majority of Sweetland’s recollections in the second half of the novel revolve around his own stifled sexual encounters, which, somewhat hypocritically, he feels fine to engage in. I suspect that Sweetland’s immeasurably brief courtship (if we can even deem it so) with Effie Burden was informed by this section of “Cock Tease,” a poem from Crummey’s Under the Keel (2013):

<span=”tab15″>That crude tug of war
was everything on offer between us
and we chafed against each
other with a sour sort
of affection.

And Effie Burden owns a telling surname, for her presence certainly feels draining. The memory that opens the second half revolves around what occurred between Sweetland and Effie just before he moved west to work in Scarborough, so he can pay for a ring. In a touching gesture, Sweetland borrows Bob-Sam Lavallee’s horse and cart then rides out in the waning April light along the shores. But rather than share an old-fashioned kiss, Crummey has Effie masturbate him:

They stared into the dark ahead as Effie unbuttoned his fly, Sweetland keeping both hands on the rein. She seemed not to know the first thing about what she was doing, squeezing and tugging like she was trying to milk a goat, and Sweetland came in streams across his knees and the boards at his feet.

Aside from the obvious discomfort on the literal level (it might have been fun to write, but it is no fun to read), the most worrying element of this passage is that the focalization belongs to Crummey’s narrator rather than to Sweetland, and the voice is so insensitive and so embarrassing for both characters, who chafe and tug as midnight nears, that the brief exchange of dialogue that caps the scene (“‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Shut up, Moses,’ she said.”) is rendered emotionally moot. In the first half of Sweetland, Crummey leads us in the direction of linguistic homophones, and yet, when male and female bodies speak, we are not similarly encouraged to see homographs but rather heterographs, and the disparity is both too uncomplicated and out-dated to truly resonate.

The sin that Ruthie commits of actually having the spirit to act on an urge (thereby making her human) is passed on, in a way, to her daughter, Clara, for it is revealed to Sweetland on Tibb’s Eve that she does not know who her father is. The following exchange then occurs:

What about Jesse? Sweetland asked.
What about him?
What happened to his father.
His father got laid, Clara said. And I got knocked up. Just a one-night thing. Didn’t even know the guy’s last name.

In Sweetland, few women can claim some small tremor of humanity. (There is Queenie Coffin, but she conveniently has agoraphobia, and therefore, she cannot ever really be caught in the act of anything; there is also Sweetland’s mother, who, unlike Ruthie, is allowed a death scene.) And these women seem to be punished by Crummey’s vision, which is all too eager to align with a man who is essentially unreleased in every sense of the word. In The Albertine Workout (2014), Anne Carson’s project of first rescuing Albertine from Marcel Proust’s suffocating hands and then restoring her femininity, might well apply to Queenie and Ruthie in Sweetland. Carson refers to “capture myopathy,” a state in which captured animals eventually die due to a build-up of unused adrenaline—a condition for which there is no treatment. This accumulation of fight-or-flight adrenaline is something that undermines the novel’s second half in the same way Proust demoralizes his creation of Albertine.    

As the last holdout on the island of Sweetland, there is a considerable amount of pressure building against old Moses; death threats (“YOU GET OUT OR YOULL BE SOME SORRY” cobbled ransom-note-like from various magazines) have and continue to be lobbied against him. There is also the intermittent presence of the wild and drug-addled Priddle brothers in from Fort Mac, and there is the ubiquitous violence visited upon animals of all stripes—rabbits, roosters, buffalo, pigs, cows giving birth to mangled calves, etc. There is no real fight or flight in the novel, and as such, the tensions falter and are extinguished. For some reason, these avenues sputter into nothingness. Where McCarthy (and even Márquez) might have concluded what is an immeasurably well-crafted arc of hostilities with an inevitable human clash, Crummey opts not for an obvious release but rather for these integral currents by sacrificing Jesse, another helpless individual. To illustrate my point, Crummey uses the image of maimed and dismembered rabbits throughout the narrative (“[a] rabbit’s decapitated head gazed up out of the basin”; “the rabbit’s dead eyes were staring at him. The head set in the branches of the tree”) to assist the pitch of terror. Crummey even goes so far as to have Sweetland pull a rabbit head from the guts of a cod, but in the end, nothing comes of them. Their presence is just that, a presence—immovable and monolithic—and this inability to allow for meaning does little more than make them feel like inconsequential niceties added at the last minute.

“There is no real fight or flight in the novel, and as such, the tensions falter, and are extinguished.”

To buttress this obstinacy, there is the curious matter of Sweetland’s Javex bottles. They first appear during the opening scene in 1966, and yet they are still there in 2012—“Sweetland drank a mouthful of fresh water from the Javex bottle”—as the man begins to endure what will become an arduous exile on the island after faking his own death. In my estimation, the fixity of such occurrences speaks to the scanty constellation of tropes Crummey has permitted himself to employ. Perhaps, just as Sweetland must endure precarious conditions and repress all of his inclinations, Crummey considered that his methodology ought to engage parallel circumstances for the results to be true and just. However, I would say that regardless of authorial impetus, what matters is the results; I cannot help thinking that the second inclusion of Javex is a simple slip where Crummey merely reaches back into his toolkit and pulls out the same tool used at the start of the project. The frequency of such blunders grows too substantial to be ignored. In sum, the little adrenaline the novel is able to muster cycles with such chronic regularity that that which ought to have meaning does not, and everything else, the things that should matter, become too muddled and confused to be truly significant. It is the readers who find themselves confined and weighed down by a narrative too keen on self-censorship.

In his essay “The Legend of the Island” from Legends of Modernity (2005), Czeslaw Milosz notes that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe:

contains both an attempt at submitting man’s nature to close analysis, so that he can demonstrate who he really is when the garments of custom and convenience that adorn him fall away, and the weakly expressed conviction that in isolation, when he frees himself from the evil influences of the crowd, man is capable of extracting from within himself virtues that until then have been suppressed, buried under bad habits.

While comparisons between Crusoe and the latter half of Sweetland are somewhat inevitable, Sweetland does nothing but burn things, eat and drink, mumble “Jesus fuck,” and ponder how little of the details of surviving he had actually worked out—there are sections where one gets the impression that Crummey’s thesaurus must be worn to dust such is the litany of verbiage. It is interesting to note that on the island of Sweetland, as the weather turns and the storms of winter move in, Sweetland, the man, adds on layers of clothing rather than removes them. This is yet another telling detail that reveals the contrast between Defoe’s precedent and Crummey’s rendition. As one might imagine, there is not a whole lot of room for an already self-stifled character to plumb the depths, to transform, or to attain even a small level of insight. Thus, by adhering to such a rigorous scale, Crummey leaves little room for himself to improvise or to find a decent space where his sense of the world might be let loose and where that world could become vulnerable. Sweetland’s virtues remain buried beneath bad habits.

Indeed, much of this portion of the novel is a sluggish accounting of how Sweetland manages to fill his time. But to be fair, it is an impressive feat of writing, for the ghosts of Sweetland’s past and present are uniquely merged in the spirit of the typhoid hallucinations that derail the narrative of McCarthy’s Suttree (1979). However, these ghosts do not work in quite the same manner precisely because this merging has been predicted—our schematic of possibility from the first scene through to the last is unavoidably constructed.

After making the decision to head west for work, Sweetland reveals his philosophy about life, which does not bode well for any joie de vivre. Sweetland puts his ideas thusly:

A life was no goddamn thing in the end … [b]its and pieces of make-believe cobbled together to look halfways human, like some stick-and-rag doll meant to scare crows out of the garden. No goddamn thing at all.

Crummey deserves some credit for taking on such a Sisyphean task, but I cannot help wondering why he allowed most things to unfurl in the manner they did; he seems trapped in a kind of Möbius strip of obviousness where the remedy is simply more of the same. The notion of islanders having to wait around for the end of one way of life—to succumb to a kind of death, so a new life might be forged—seems to me to be relatively undiscovered country for the vehicle of fiction. And yet any possibility of insight, of plainly addressing how a people ought to create meaning under the strains of history, is disrupted by creating such a cantankerous hub as old Sweetland who does not ever really leap off the page both because he smothers all of the people around him and because Crummey’s presentation of his holdout is cluttered by too much masculinity and too much subdued sex and violence. If it is grief and ghosts you are after, Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth as well as Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping all merge the dead and the living in fascinating and ultimately more successful ways. If it is depravity and obduracy you desire, McCarthy’s Child of God and Suttree are fine examples. As for the interrogation of history among Crummey’s works, Galore—which works so well precisely because Crummey allows himself more characters through which to diffuse his themes—is the work most deserving of attention. Sweetland is simply too unpopulated to deal with most things sufficiently.

It is entirely fair to say that if Sweetland was Crummey’s first novel, it would mark an outstanding debut in Canadian letters; however, despite the incontrovertible fact that his work bears evidence of tremendous artistic growth (for Sweetland seems unlikely to have been authored by the same person who penned River Thieves), this novel has the unfair chore of following Galore—a task, to be blunt, no one should be handed.

During one memory, Sweetland and the Reverend are reminiscing about the Sri Lankans and Sweetland vaguely recalls a sermon. The Reverend, taken aback that any man might remember his words, replies:

You remember a sermon of mine?
Just the one. It was something about all of us being in the same situation. Lost on the ocean, like.
The Reverend shifted behind the desk. I was always a bit obvious when it came to preaching, he said.

 


Nicholas Herring has walked over 7,000 kilometres in the past 13 months and still does not know what it is that he knows. He works and lives with dogs in the east end of Toronto.

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