This is Part 5 in my ongoing “Primer on the Newfoundland Novel” series. For links to parts 1-4, check the bottom of the post.
“I did well on tips. Funny how Newfoundlanders are with money. They sense the end is nigh, I guess.”
Edward Riche’s first novel Rare Birds emerged in 1997, at the midpoint of a particularly apocalyptic era in Newfoundland. This was after the cod moratorium but before the oil boom – a period when the province’s population shrank by more than 10% in less than ten years, when national newspapers callously told Newfoundlanders to “move where the work is” – last one off the island make sure to turn off the lights and lock the door. 1997 was an odd year,though – at perhaps the peak of this pessimism, it was also a year of official celebration, the supposed 500th anniversary of Newfoundland’s European “discovery.” No shortage of government money was poured into pagentry and pomp (the Queen went to Bonavista to greet a replica of John Cabot’s ship as it sailed into harbour, even). However, even as the mere existence of Newfoundland was celebrated, it still seemed doomed, fundamentally ill-fated:
“Nature was reclaiming Newfoundland in the name of the Beothuks and the great auk. The wharfs would wash away, the softball diamonds would become bogs and the phone booth would sink into the damp earth. Newfoundland resisted civilization. The ancient Dorset peoples had failed. The Point Revenge Indians had failed. The Norse had failed. The Basques had failed. And now the British Empire and its Canadian water boys were failing. The island belonged to the black bears and caribou and lynx and crows. And they would soon have it back.”
Something of this atmosphere, this sense of an unsustainable largesse-in-despair, of a fraudulent celebration that can’t help but ring hollow, characterizes Rare Birds, an intelligent but unpretentious plot-driven comedy. It’s a novel that feels, to me, something like a half-rueful, half-wild last laugh, a Swiftian smirk shared by the few who see and comprehend the unravelling situation but are powerless to alter a thing as the island itself sinks under its own weight into the Slough of Despond – hurried to its inevitable fate, perhaps, by the hand of its unloving colonial masters (see above re: Britain and Canada), but doomed, in truth, by its unlucky and maladaptive nature.
The protagonist of Rare Birds is Dave. Dave is a foodie suffering what might be a mid-life crisis. He has quit his job, moved home to Newfoundland, and emptied his bank accounts in order to open a fine dining restaurant in a fishing village just outside St. John’s, in the ‘”brown bag belt” – something that might make sense in 2010s Newfoundland, flush with oil money, but a quixotic if not insane move in the economically moribund 1990s. Dave’s restaurant has a fittingly ill-favoured name: The Auk, a bird driven into extinction by the insatiable bloodlust of Newfoundlanders, who slaughtered them into oblivion. Dave has spared no expense: the restaurant has been lavishly renovated, and the wine cellar is full of expensive vintages.
The novel opens several months after the restaurant does, and both the business and its proprietor are floundering; there are no customers and Dave’s wife has abandoned the rapidly worsening situation, taking a job with a conservative think-tank in Washington, DC; bankruptcy and divorce both beckon. The novel’s plot takes off when Dave’s eccentric neighbour (and perhaps his only real friend), Phonse, hits on a scheme to bring customers to The Auk’s door: fake a rare bird sighting, a colourful and distinctive bird last seen perhaps twenty years ago (the sighting is debated), now thought definitely extinct. Such a report will bringing hopeful (and hungry) bird watchers out of the city (or, indeed, from around the globe) to the remote locale, the very doorstep of Dave’s restaurant, The Auk. And as The Auk is the only place to eat anywhere nearby, he will have captive customers. The refined palates of the bird-watching set will be impressed by the improbable existence of fine dining in rural Newfoundland; word will get ’round, and Dave and The Auk will both be saved. The scheme works, but almost immediately entropy sets to work complicating the hoax. Sexual frustration, industrial espionage, menacing locals, bumbling Canadian government officials, and a lot of cocaine make maintaining this fraudulent success all the more difficult, and things begin to spin out of control.
Phonse, the engineer and prime mover of the situation, is many things: an inventor, a schemer, an autodidact, a fatalist, a paranoiac (justifiably, it turns out), a dynamo of energy with a relentless and thoroughly open mind. He’s probably the novel’s most interesting character, and he’s also pure Bayman – one of the two most basic tribal distinctions that exist in Newfoundland (the other being Townie – about which more later). We are introduced to Phonse through Dave’s memory of him euthanizing an adolescent humpback whale that had become trapped in sea ice and was doomed to be slowly and cruelly crushed to death. This extreme act of difficult kindness, marginal to if not outside of propriety, sums up Phonse perfectly. Phonse either sees the situation clearly or educates himself until he can do so, and then he simply, without ceremony or posturing, does the thing that needs doing; to lesser minds, this may make him appear eccentric if no insane.
Phonse is a Bayman. Townies are from St.John’s. Baymen are from the countless rural communities. In the Townie mind, Baymen are supposed to be uneducated, unworldly, simple, small-minded, perhaps even uncivilized. Phonse is none of those things, but he lives in exile from his outport community, Push Cove, because many of the people there precisely fit this stereotype. By including both the stereotype and its opposition, though, Riche attacks from both sides both offensive stereotypes of and romantic notions about Newfoundland.
“It was the hollow myth of Newfoundland again. The people were all supposed to be so sweet and colourful but never dangerous, the good poor. This was Canada’s Happy Province. I’ll introduce you to some car cannibals, thought Dave. They’d club you like a seal pup and sell your organs for the price of a dozen beer.”
And what about the Townies? If Phonse is a Bayman, Dave is a Townie; if Townies have a dim view of Baymen that is, nonetheless, often accurate, Baymen return the favour, likewise with a degree of accuracy:
“The peculiar little city gripping the steep sides of a small harbour seems magical on first sight. Its streets are a senseless maze, the map of a drunk’s progress. Its wooden row houses are painted the most audacious colours to combat the dreary agency of persistent fog and drizzle. The people, the Townies, seem friendly, generous with colourful opinions, spoken with a distinct mongrel brogue of Irish and English influence. They are surprisingly worldly. For the people of the many outports along the coast of Newfoundland, St. John’s was Sin City, impossibly cosmopolitan and jaded for such a small place. The charms of St. John’s were undeniable, irresistable. No wonder it had suckered so many souls. The people that really lived in St. John’s, the ones who hadn’t gone away too long or hadn’t fallen under its spell during a brief visit, the real Townies, knew better . . . . They knew that St. John’s was, beneath the pink and powder blue paint, the political capital of a four-hundred year legacy of misery and deprivation, a desperate colonial outpost of missed opportunities. Dave’s town.”
Rare Birds is worth reading for its wit and its plot; it’s a funny, briskly paced, readable book; you can get through it in a day. In addition to these qualities, passages such as those I’ve quoted here make it a notable and useful introduction to Newfoundland. It’s a novel that’s deeply engaged with the project of theorizing the place, thinking about its nature, its past and its future. Riche has absolutely no romanticism for Newfoundland, and, judging from Rare Birds and his other writings, he relishes opportunities to dismantle romantic myths about the place. But this isn’t to say he doesn’t love Newfoundland as well. Rare Birds demonstrates a wealth of knowledge about the place, its history and its people, the kind of knowledge few Newfoundlanders possess (at one point, Dave bitterly thinks that the provincial slogan should be changed from “The Happy Province” to “I Forgets” – a nice riff on / inversion of the Quebecois Je me souviens). Rare Birds also demonstrates a lot of deep thought about why Newfoundland is such a “tragic case,” a “battered and bewildered nation, the sport of historic misfortune,” and it does all this through the medium of a fast-paced plot-driven satire.