Sebastian Barry has said that a good historical novel is about “retrieving the present moment”.*
That is true of Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man.
From the beautiful but austere cover art of the frontier, to the detailed descriptions of fort and camp life, you might think this novel is a world apart from 2011’s joys and concerns.
But the matters considered in this novel can be readily understood by contemporary readers.
Take this, for instance:
“Everyone…has private opinions. The question is, can a man shelve them as required? At the behest of his superior?”
It’s really no different.
Your boss wants the impossible. He knows it’s impossible. He doesn’t want to look bad for not achieving the impossible. Someone will take the fall. It won’t be him.
“All his life people have handed him dangerous, dirty jobs, wanted him to clean up their messes, asked him to smooth the stony way, and when he did, they cast him off, turned their backs on him.”
An archetypal tale. (And don’t assume that these two quotations are actually connected plot-wise: more than one character in this novel is being asked to do something that another does not want to be seen doing.)
And, speaking of archetypes. How about parental disapproval?
“He says that my ingratitude has given ample proof that the raising and educating of me has been a waste of time and money, and that trying to talk sense into me is pointless.”
Not measuring up: that’s a feeling that crosses the generations.
“’Lord…maybe it’s you I have to thank for this. What was I thinking when I married you?’
It comes as a shock to [insert unhappy wife’s name] that her husband could entertain the same question that has so long perplexed her.”
That was quite likely uttered a few times last night on prime-time television.
“Sometimes they got so carried away with sharing their days, with wrapping up ordinary, commonplace events in gift paper for one another, that they suddenly realized twilight was drawing in and they hadn’t yet eaten.”
That’s not limited to frontier-life: no way.
Of course, there is a lot of history in this novel, but readers don’t need to know anything — about Cypress Hills, about Sitting Bull, about Little Bighorn, about General Custer, about the Fenian threat, about American/Canadian border skirmishes, about the North West Mounted Police — to appreciate the story-telling herein.
Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man retrieves the present moment with unexpected depth and intimacy.
He’s been on the jury. He’s been on the shortlist. You’d’ve thought that the Giller-bility of this one would be remarkably high. But maybe The Sisters Brothers is carrying the pennant for well-written novels set in the west down the dusty frontier road.
Letters. Diary. Narrative that slips across and between times and places. The author trained as a historian, but he did not pursue life as an academic because he wanted to tell history in a more intimate way: A Good Man melds those two energies.
Some poetic bits, rooted in language that suits the setting and the characters. “At the beginning of the day the morning sun is nothing but a soft, warm hand on his back. But in an hour or two, it turns hot as a stove lid, leaves him dripping sweat.”
The. West. Forts on both sides of the border, Fort Benton and Fort Walsh. Makeshift camps. “Horse and rider crossed to the foot of the hill and began to leisurely negotiate the clumps of cactus and scrubby juniper that scatter the slope.”
The three-shelf library in the back of The Billiard Emporium contains tattered books and magazines, “blood and thunders that offer a corpse every chapter” and some engaging novels by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. A Good Man would be on the shelf with the latter.
You appreciate an old-fashioned tale. With a bit of local colour: “…bone-chillingly afraid. The kind of fear that tightened your nut-sack and puckered your arsehold every hour of the day.” You prefer a realistic hero, with burrs and wounds, to the Disney-fied types.
* In interview with Eleanor Wachtel, September 2011, Harbourfront Reading Series