Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul
By David Adams Richards
Doubleday Canada, 2011
DAVID ADAMS RICHARDS is one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, and though he is less known outside Canada than he deserves, his reputation continues to spread. Fiercely grounded in a particular place, iconoclastic but deeply orthodox in outlook, his writing has the emotional and moral force to leave readers utterly broken and mysteriously uplifted (Mercy Among the Children is the only book I’ve ever read that has made me shake). As a prose craftsman, Richards is without pretense. His sentences are clear-cut and crisp, but with a stylistic lilt—as if he is speaking to a friend. I heard his Miramichi brogue as soon as I cracked the cover of his new novel Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul:
The day Hector Penniac died in the fourth hold of the cargo ship Lutheran he woke up at 6:20 in the morning. It would be a fine, hot June day. He could hear the bay from his window—it was just starting to make high tide—and far offshore he could see the lobster boats moving out to their traps.
These few lines pulled me into Richards’s visceral account of this young native man’s tragic death on the shores of New Brunswick’s Miramichi River in 1985. This incident leads to others during that hot summer, until two more lives are lost—Roger Savage, a white man living on the edge of the Micmac reserve that is up in arms about his perceived role in Hector’s death, and a young native boy known as Little Joe, who gets caught in the crossfire between Roger and a band of Micmac “warriors,” led by the volatile Joel Ginnish, who are trying to force Roger out of his lifelong home for allegedly killing Joel’s cousin Hector.
All of this happens while old Amos Paul is chief of the reserve, and he remains one of the few characters concerned with finding out what truly happened to Hector Penniac in the hold of the Lutheran. Amos’s grandson Markus Paul is another. Most of the other key characters—led by either the charismatic politician Isaac Snow or the dangerous and galvanizing Joel Ginnish—are concerned with making Hector’s death mean something. They are less interested in finding out the truth than with concocting a “truth” that serves their purposes.
For Isaac Snow, Hector’s death becomes an event around which to rally residents of the reserve, giving him more political leverage. For Joel Ginnish, it becomes a means of deflecting attention away from his own criminal activities like drug running and poaching. But neither Snow nor Ginnish nor even the earnest reporter Max Doran, who hopes to make his name by covering the case, is caricatured by Richards, though the ways they delude themselves are plainly stated by the restrained narrative voice. Instead, oscillating smoothly between 1985 and 2006, Richards explores their mixed motivations, even as their decisions mount to the explosive confrontation that kills both Roger, who stubbornly tries to protect the only home he has ever known, and Little Joe, a fatherless boy who tries to be brave and runs into gunfire with his empty BB gun.
For Richards, Little Joe is braver than the “warriors” trying burn out Roger Savage, just as Amos Paul is nobler in trying to defend the so-called “Bigot of Bartibog,” than Max Doran is in trying, for selfish reasons, to promote the welfare of the reserve’s First Nations people. Amos Paul, for all his mawkishness—his big cowboy hat, scrawny stature, childish grin—comes off as one of the novel’s strongest characters because he wants the undiluted truth of what happened to Hector. And this is why Amos is able to give Hector’s death more meaning—even though he doesn’t solve the case—than those who try to make it political so they can use him as a martyr for their cause.
The same can be said of Little Joe’s death, for which Roger Savage is posthumously blamed. For many, on and off the reserve, the boy’s death becomes a way of justifying Roger’s demise. But for Markus Paul, the loss of Little Joe is a tragedy simply because a life is cut short and that loss leaves a community broken. This loss is magnified in the character of Sky Barnaby, who is undone by her younger brother’s death and in turn destroys her life with drug abuse, constantly pushing Markus, who loves her, further and further away.
In this novel, death always leads to more death. A lie leads to more lies. Compromise leads to more compromise. The clouds gather and the world becomes a darker, bleaker place. This, unfortunately, is all that some readers of Richards’ novels ever see. But here, as in all his novels—from The Coming of Winter (1974) to The Lost Highway (2007)—there are characters who show common decency and goodness, things Richards sees as everyday sacred virtues. These characters, like Amos Paul and his grandson Markus, are the ones who keep the world from going to perdition.
But the truth, once discovered, is not a healing balm for Richards or his characters. He offers no sentimental salve for the wounded in this story. Instead he shows us how we delude ourselves: how we invent truths—like the idea of being morally “progressive”—that, instead of making us more just, allow us to justify our ostracization of those who are unlike us. As does Max Doran, the young reporter covering Hector Penniac’s death, who sincerely believes he is righting a historical wrong by siding with Snow, Ginnish, and other First Nations people against the “redneck” Roger Savage. Richards shows this political correctness to be just as racist as the racism it claims to combat.
It is Markus Paul who sees that Doran, in writing what he thinks everyone wants to hear, has gotten himself into a tight spot, like a lobster in a trap, one that will eventually cost him his job and reputation. Late in the novel, Richards describes Doran’s tragic downfall with the same unnerving sympathy with which he charted Alex Chapman’s self-destruction in The Lost Highway (the novel in which Markus Paul first appears as an RCMP officer). In these final pages, words that Amos Paul once said to Max Doran are repeated in a damning mantra: “It is not the Conibear trap that kills the beaver, but the drowning that follows.”
Doran is not the only one drowning in a trap of his own making. Almost all the characters in the novel force themselves into such binds—like Isaac who declares a hunger strike in prison and nearly kills himself to maintain his honor in the community, or Joel Ginnish who finally gets caught by his own scheming. Richards takes no joy in these characters’ unsuccessful, gasping attempts to stay morally afloat—to justify themselves and their actions in the end. And he never allows the reader to glory in any character’s demise. Instead he makes the reader feel the pressure each person is under—whether of their own making or not, whether justifiable or not—and in this way Richards challenges the reader to either look each character in the face, acknowledge each one’s flawed yet fierce humanity, or look away.
This to me is the beating heart of Richards’ writing: his ability to reveal life’s bleak truths, like so many black embers, and then to breathe on them and make them glow, spark, and catch fire in the reader’s imagination. Max Doran is this strong novel’s finest example. By the end we have seen Doran catch himself like a beaver in a trap, thrash in self-doubt and depression, and nearly drown in alcoholism. By page 274 we’ve all but given up on Doran as a morally lukewarm character—at which point Richards has Markus Paul arrive and give Doran his last chance to tell the story straight: to tell the truth about the bloody incidents of 1985, in light of new evidence that Markus has spent a lifetime gathering.
In this meeting Markus tells Doran that the “war” of 1985 was not between Roger Savage and the First Nations, even though that is how Doran made it seem in his articles. The struggle was deeper than that—more intimate and more insidious. “The primary war was between you and you, or me and me, or my grandfather and my grandfather. Isaac against Isaac. Joel against Joel.” Markus goes on to say that when they diluted truth with untruth they encountered sin: “If we even believe in sin.”
I don’t think that you can read this novel and not believe in sin: in our capacity as humans to lie to ourselves, especially when it fortifies our own self-righteousness. But neither do I think you can read Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul and not be challenged to love more deeply and, in so doing, see in these characters’ broken lives what they themselves often cannot perceive: that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, by God and by their author.
Every one. Even the one who lashes out on the very last page. Especially her.
In this beautifully understated yet richly detailed novel Richards has created some of his strongest and most enduring characters. They will lunge at you: shock you with their bitterness and grit. Make you recoil when they leap off the page and wrestle you deeper into your reading chair. They may even cripple you—they are that fierce and sharp. But, I’ll tell you this: they will also bless you.
—Reviewed by Samuel Martin
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.