The stories collected in One Last Good Look
and the journal-novel This All Happened
have given Michael Winter an enviable cachet as modern Newfoundland's charming genius loci
. In The Big Why
, his first historical novel, he sticks to his strengths--his knowledge and love for Newfoundland, his economical and shockingly eloquent language, and his gift for a comic flourish--but moves into territory that would eat the amiable Gabriel English, his usual autobiographical protagonist, alive: the life of the American landscape painter Rockwell Kent, a dandified frontiersman with a weakness for stark landscapes and fertile women. Tired of life among the bars and bohemians of New York, Kent moves to Brigus, Newfoundland, in the spring of 1914. He settles, rents a house, and sets to work befriending the locals and painting their landscape. Several months later, he is joined by his too-faithful wife and his young children. As the novelty of his presence wears off--and as the war in Europe stokes paranoia in the British Empire--he begins to systematically alienate his hosts, until he is eventually deported as a suspected spy and alien interloper. Throughout the novel, he is at the mercy of his surroundings and his excessive faith in their benevolence--unless he is flirting, fornicating, or painting.
Winter casts Kent's tale in the form of an explicit, intimate journal. Kent's coarsest infidelities, his humiliations, and his moments of gross arrogance are interspersed with philosophical musings (sometimes banal, sometimes profound), surges of love for family, and, best of all, sketches of Newfoundland life in the early 20th century. At its best, The Big Why reaches the heights of clarity that Winter has achieved in his short stories. Anyone caught in the wilds with a knife, a dead caribou, and a copy of this novel will probably be able to work out how to skin and dress the animal. Winter's Kent is an intriguing study: an aesthete, an ugly American, a socialist, a compulsive philanderer, he moves to Newfoundland in search of a Marxian pastoral, and is greeted with a rude bucolic serfdom that somehow extorts love from its citizens. Readers who demand a likeable protagonist won't get far with The Big Why, for Kent can be an insufferable prig. He is a rich character, however, and Winter has created a sophisticated portrait of an artist out of step with his time. --Jack Illingworth
From Publishers Weekly
This odd bird of a lucidly written biographical novel about 20th-century American painter Rockwell Kent is not about art. Other than the titles of a few paintings, and the studio where he retreats to escape his family and the world, there is little discussion of Kent's work. Instead, this is the story of Kent and his family's sojourn in Brigus, Newfoundland, where they flee the inquiring eyes of New York for some rural peace. But rather than affording privacy, the small town greets him first with fascination, then scorn, and then, with the arrival of WWI—and the socialist painter's lack of patriotic zeal—unfounded fear. Winter expertly outlines his protagonist's psychological nuances, but offers minimal indication of what Kent's art means to him or the role it plays in his life. The author (Creaking in Their Skins
) is on steadier ground with dialogue, which is uniformly trenchant and humorous. Kent's discussions with his friend and mentor, Gerald, take on the glow of a modern Socratic dialogue or an intellectual improv routine, and Kent's wife, Kathleen, comes vividly to life. Winter gives us a flesh-and-blood Rockwell Kent the man, but does not do the same for Kent the artist. (Jan.)
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