The Hole in Timmy’s Atlantic Heart


By Jeff Bursey

Herb Wyile’s new book on Atlantic-Canadian lit locates the reader “…not in a pastoral, romantic, pre-modern Maritime landscape but in a ‘fallen’ postmodern world of welfare apartments, tabloid violence, and doughnut shops–call it Anne of Tim Hortons.” Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature is a diverting book that relies on carefully selected texts to show that the Folk of Atlantic Canada are being thoroughly commodified.

The novelists, playwrights and poets Herb Wyile brings in to illustrate his points are engaged in addressing many serious issues: capitalism’s overbearing and rapacious nature, resource stripping, species destruction, deforestation, pollution, out-migration, racism, sexism, and the replacement of trades and craftsmanship with tourism and a service economy. Add in the malignancy of Stephen Harper’s “culture of defeat,” the physical isolation from more cosmopolitan centres, an aging population, and chronic high unemployment, and one wonders how life goes on there at all.

According to Wyile, certain writers approach the current neoliberal and postcolonial context by undercutting smugly bland representations of history and weakening shoddy cultural foundations built by governments and tourism advocates. (Michelle Butler Hallett’s deluded your sailors, which came out in November 2011, is too recent an example to be included in this work.) Among those receiving extended treatment, apart from other theoreticians and critics, are Michael Winter (The Big Why), Wayne Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and Baltimore’s Mansion), Charlie Rhindress (The Maritime Way of Life), George Elliot Clarke (George & Rue), Lisa Moore (February), and Alistair MacLeod (No Great Mischief). Wyile underlines how dominant a force Newfoundland and Labrador currently is in “highlighting the disparity between outsiders’ expectations about life in the region and the more complicated and less idyllic lived realities of Atlantic Canadians.”

Those negative aspects lead, in various ways, to a peculiar difficulty Atlantic Canadian writers face. “That the cosmopolitanism of Atlantic-Canadian writing should come as a surprise, in other words, reflects the extent to which the region has been constructed as insular, primitive, effectively lost in time.” However, “cosmopolitan” isn’t how one reviewer of Anne of Tim Hortons sees matters: “One consequence of this approach [Wyile’s emphasis on neo-liberalism and post-colonialism] is that the books selected are rarely those of the greatest artistic distinction,” Steven Henighan wrote in “Guerillas or Folklorists?” (Literary Review of Canada, October 2011), which is beside the point, for Wyile has chosen texts that support his argument. No surprise there. Henighan is equally selective when he writes that while the “rest of us floated off into ersatz internationalism, Atlantic-Canadian writers, the country fiddlers of our literary scene, satisfied our nostalgic longing for authenticity and tradition.”

It’s a sign of the grimness of Wyile’s book that one walks away from it in a melancholy mood, for the few positive finds—such as the very existence of Atlantic Canadian literature, which I guess is at best a subset of Canadian literature—only augment the gloom. What he holds out hope for is that the variety of plays, poems, and especially the historical novel under discussion potentially will leave their readers wiser, and stiffen their spine for the long fight against entities like mining giant Vale, governments, hydroelectric companies, and the capital that sustains them. It sounds like wishful thinking to me; money being the sinew of affairs, a wad of paper doesn’t stand much chance.

In remarks on David Adams Richards that appear early on Wyile states that, like a spirit (in his term, éminence grise), “… Richards hovers at the edges of this book somewhat uneasily. He has been vocal in emphasizing the primacy of moral and spiritual concerns in his writing, and, indeed, his work does not fit that readily with the kinds of political, social, and economic considerations driving this study…” A reader becomes aware that, admirable within its limits as Wyile’s work is, missing from it are two key factors when considering writing: religion (or faith) and aesthetics. A third, not necessarily important in the context of Richards’ concerns, is the dependency of publishers on subsidies, which I’ll address first.

Relying as they do on provincial government funding, publishers feel threatened if it’s removed, as was almost the case for PEI’s Acorn Press in 2011. The reading public, a portion of Wyile’s Folk, have a liking for this or that sort of story, and publishers aim to supply the required product, made by local hands, which both helps them get the grants to supply more of the same, and encourages other writers to design books that appease publisher, government and the marketplace. In Newfoundland and Labrador when I was growing up, this meant the prevalence of rank works by “Uncle Al” Clouston and Ray Guy, while whatever might have been literary was not encouraged. Folk yarns sold well, and only recently are writers there building on other writing instead of oral tales.

Religion matters to people at the most private level, and at the most public (such as what political parties Catholics and Protestants traditionally voted for); how a denominational school system united and divided people; how those from other religions are regarded when they move to this region; and how the behaviour of priests and Christian Brothers over decades (and here I don’t mean only crimes against children) have influenced and shaped thought and policy, and formed part of the power structure. To not address religion is to leave out much of the fabric of a community that is considered important (whether one believes in something or rebels against it), maybe especially in the case of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Perhaps that’s why Wyile is made uneasy by the shade of Richards. “Capitalism does not ask, What’s the economy for? It merely asks it to grow,” writes Curtis White in The Barbaric Heart, a sharp criticism of our current system. “The Barbaric Heart [an “ethical perspective” on capitalism] is a pure emptiness, an emptiness that doesn’t know itself as empty. It is an emptiness that has turned upon itself. It is a moral black hole.” Anne of Tim Hortons avoids that moral black hole, and thus removes itself from being an urgent document. I’m not going to suggest what Wyile should have done, but it’s fair to say that what he didn’t do was look dead on at the moral component of one of his topics.

When it comes to aesthetics, this book resolutely shies away from declaring that a novel is good or bad or inferior. The roaring of those “political, social, and economic” engines largely has drowned out the poetry and the craft of the writers Wyile has chosen. He does a good job elucidating novels and plays (a welcome aspect) on the topics that concern him, but do these books have intrinsic properties that make them Art? The books chosen, or at least some of them, took effort on the part of the writer as he or she fashioned a sentence. By leaving out the aesthetic qualities of the books under consideration, and concentrating on class, race, gender issues and consumerism, Wyile leaves untouched a pertinent question: If the books aren’t artful, how will they do whatever he wants them to do? They might as well be tracts left to molder on a doorstep. Wyile’s earnestness, coupled with his thesis, tells the reader little about the literary aspect of literature. But it’s fair for Wyile to have his preferences.

Instead of being content with what’s been published, Wyile hands out a list of topics writers of the region could address:

Whether it is the history of absentee landlords on Prince Edward Island, the history of the turbulent coal industry in Cape Breton, or even regional economic development in New Brunswick…, there is certainly ample material for the kind of rich revisionings of the past that have become a staple of Canadian literature over the last four decades. As more and more writers come to resist the vision of the Maritimes as “a place that didn’t count any more,” we are likely to see in the literature of the region an increasingly varied, sophisticated, and inventive engagement with the past.

In the acknowledgments Wyile states that his “interest in Atlantic-Canadian literature” began in grad school and increased with conferences and papers. It’s quite telling that deepening sophistication is predicated on further resistance to a stereotype, and ends there. Little is said about the aesthetic and emotional dimensions of a work and its receptivity, and repetition of themes is advised instead of the joy of freshness of subject and approach. What dominates are the above-mentioned grimness and an austere imagination. To those who expect writing to contain and embrace such things as compassion, experimentation and inventiveness, Anne of Tim Hortons will come across as narrow and stingy, and in its focus and prescriptions a diversion from the deepest purposes of art. Herb Wyile’s image of a doughnut quoted at the opening applies to his work: the big hole in his view of Atlantic Canadian writing is where aesthetics and morality ought to be, as both are vital to a more complete understanding of the writers and readers of the region.

Wilfrid Laurier University Press | 294 pages |  $42.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1554583263


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Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.