My education in Canadian literature continues apace with this, my third book by award-winning TV journalist and documentary film maker Linden MacIntyre. First I read his 2009 bestseller THE BISHOP'S MAN, then, CAUSEWAY, his memoir of growing up on Cape Breton before the Canso causeway "changed everything," and now his earlier bestselling novel, THE LONG STRETCH. Obviously I've read the three books in bass-ackwards order, but I don't think it matters, as they are all complete and absorbing books each in their own way. But, having read the memoir, I can see the autobiographical threads running through both novels, as MacIntyre's own father was a "hard rock miner," often away from home during Linden's boyhood.
Cousins Johnny and Sextus Gillis, characters who showed up in The Bishop's Man, take center stage here, as do their fathers and other folks from "the long stretch," an 'out back' remote area on the west end of Cape Breton Island. There is a dark violent secret dating back to the closing days of WWII in rural Holland that grimly ties the lives and misfortunes of Johnny's father, Sandy Gillis, and a neighbor, Angus MacAskill. And there is a scandalous rupture of a marriage that has Effie MacAskill (Johnny's wife) running off with Sextus, by then a successful writer and newspaperman who has 'escaped' to Toronto from the provincial village where they all grew up. Effie is - to try to show the ties here - Angus's daughter and sister to Duncan, who becomes a priest (and the central character in THE BISHOP'S MAN). I'm not going to give you a complete schematic of the cast of characters here, but take my word for it, they're all connected in some way.
MacIntyre employs an intriguing 'frame' device for telling the story of two generations here, with Sextus returning home from Toronto after both their fathers (and Angus too) are all dead, and spending a long binge-drinking afternoon and evening with cousin Johnny. Slowly the dark connections and sordid stories of the past forty years or so emerge as the two men work their way through drink after drink after drink, toying dangerously with a pistol and even coming to blows at one point as a Lear-like storm rages outside. Sextus is looking for something from Johnny, exactly what perhaps even he doesn't know, but he obviously harbors a long-time simmering resentment for the closeness Johhny enjoyed with Jack (Sextus's father). Yeah - it's that fathers and sons thing again, and that age-old difficulty between them, the seeming inability to connect, to simply let each other know they love each other. Ya know?
This is one hell of a book, and I mean that in the best possible way. MacIntyre has a way of getting at the truth of what really matters between people, and also of showing the difficulty of expressing it. Here's one way he explains it -
"The truth ... is real simple: Life is a sequence of mistakes and consequences and a process of getting smarter because of them. Most of them, anyway. The hard part is those rare, big ones. They're the ones that either destroy you or make you wiser."
Narrator Johnny Gillis was nearly destroyed, but not quite. He seems a little wiser at least, even if he hasn't quite figured it all out.
Oh yeah, one more thing. Perhaps one of the most
important 'characters' in this book - and also in the other two - is the rock hard and unforgiving landscape of Cape Breton. If you've never been there, you'll feel like you have been by the time you've read Linden MacIntyre's books. He has absorbed the 'feel' of the place he grew up and renders it like the talented artist he is.
These are not 'happily ever after' kinda books, but I love the way this guy writes. I hope there's another book coming soon. - Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER