Tuesday, August 21, 2007

staying with the burning rock for a little longer, here's Michael Winter

The Big Why
by Michael Winter

What is integrity anyway, except constancy in character. And what if maintaining constancy is false. What if one assumes that the soul is not thoroughly unwavering. Why honour the man who does not change his opinion. Who does not alter his course. Who is methodical and predictable. Why praise the pattern. What if there is no accurate measure of a man's behaviour. A few things: the pulse of the world is always shifting between poles. I have become attached to the ontological. I believe in atheism and the power of the ontological. The reason I do not believe in God is because I am happy with this world. I believe in slim books. I believe in the shape a boat cuts through ice. Sometimes we need God. Our hunches are not intuitive, or they are a blend of nature and the absorption of cultural ways. The third is will to know a truth. This is my book, this will to know.

God, I love Michael Winter. He has a way of looking at the world and capturing all the confusion and fear and angst and joy and excitement in one of two sentences. In The Big Why, Winter leaves aside his usual literary persona of Gabriel English to create a historical fiction. This novel tells of the American painter Rockwell Kent and his decision, in 1914, to uproot his family from their comfortable New York and to transplant them in a Newfoundland fishing community called Brigus. Kent struggles to fit in in the small community, but seems to take as many steps forwards as he does back. When the first world war erupts in earnest, Kent's passion for German culture, his vegetarianism, his socialism and his pacifism all make him the perfect target for assumed anti-British sensibilities, and he is eventually run out of the country of Newfoundland as a German spy.

Rockwell Kent is a man of great passion, both in her art and in his life, but he is not someone who can direct that passion effectively, and the result is that he is left torn between the man he believes that he is and the man he would desperately like to be. Kent is a womanizer, and his desire for women leads him to cheat constantly on his wife, Kathleen. He justifies it to himself that he forewarned Kathleen that he could never be faithful, and for the most part Kathleen tolerates the affairs. Indeed, casual sexual encounters don't really bother Kathleen, though she seems to have married Kent with the expectation that he would grown out of that behaviour. For Kathleen, though, it is emotional betrayals that leave her shocked and speechless. The first occurs when Kent gets together with the woman he loves before Kathleen, Jenny, and they have a baby while Kent is married to Kathleen. The second comes when Kent takes up with the woman who is meant to be caring for their children while Kathleen is in the hospital in St. John's with a complicated pregnancy. This woman, Emily, was a friend of Kathleen's, and the betrayal is such that, for the first time, Kathleen calls Kent a burden. This is the beginning of the end of the marriage, and they eventually divorce. (Kent's affair with Emily also produces a love child, but nothing is learnt of that for many years later, and well after Kathleen's own death.) The bizarre thing about this painful and volatile relationship is that Kent repeatedly argues that he wants to be faithful -- that if he could be any other kind of man than the man he is, he would want to be a fully domesticated sort of person. He would want to be monogamous to Kathleen. His inability to be that man is troubling for him and leads him to constantly be split between the father and husband he ought to be and the womanizing man he actually is. Negotiating the male identity has always been a motif in the writing of Michael Winter, and here he retraces that idea with the very compelling tale of a man torn between two idealized selves, never quite capable of finding the balance or middle ground.

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