‘Minister Without Portfolio’ by Michael Winter

Minister Without Portfolio coverReviewed by Alison Gillmor

Michael Winter’s fifth novel is a powerful examination of modern masculinity. The British-born, Newfoundland-raised Winter writes about two of the traditional man-themes, love and war, but he does so in unexpected ways, his characteristic minimalism building to a moving conclusion.

Newfoundlander Henry Hayward is drifting a bit. “A minister without portfolio,” his friend calls him. ”You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere.” After the breakup of a relationship, Henry takes his ex-girlfriend’s advice to “live a dangerous life” and heads to Afghanistan. He is drawn “by the thought of war. Or not war but an expulsion from civilian life.” Ostensibly Henry is still a civilian, part of a contracted team doing military support work, but due to the shifty nature of modern combat he ends up on a quasi-official reconnaissance mission. Inexperienced, barely trained, Henry makes a mistake that probably costs the life of his friend Tender, a reservist and fellow Newfoundlander.

Returning home, Henry begins a tentative, guilty relationship with Martha, Tender’s former girlfriend. He also buys a rundown old house that Tender had planned to fix up. Due to the locals’ vague approach to wills, deeds and surveying, there is some uncertainty as to who actually owns the land.

Henry is aware that he’s in some sense living what might have been Tender’s life, a difficult position made almost impossible by the fact he was involved with Tender’s death. But watching Martha one day, he also believes that it might be possible “to learn new, complicated emotions that work over the scar tissue of torment and allow the face and hands to convey a manner of grace.”  (Though he claims that the last book he read was Alas, Babylon in high school, Henry is given to thinking and saying things that are inescapably literary.)

Winter hits a few topical subjects, but always from a sideways angle. Canada’s minister of defence is mentioned a few times, though not by name, as is SNC-Lavalin, an engineering and construction company dogged by corruption charges in its overseas dealings. The novel also looks at the latest version of the old Newfoundland story, in this case the men fuelling the Fort McMurray oil boom, who work for months at a time, living in dorm rooms or crammed apartments, while wives or girlfriends hold things together at home.

Despite the time spent away, the novel is really rooted on the Rock. There are indelible descriptions of the land, from sea to rocky slate to headlands where the “wind can blow the milk out of your tea.” But mostly Winter is interested in the community. After Afghanistan, the next piece of advice Henry gets from a woman is to “stay home and take care of his hundred people.” Winter writes about rural life in a way that’s both matter-of-fact and nuanced. Many of Henry’s neighbours manage some kind of stitched-together living—lobster fishing, moose hunting, rabbit snaring, berry picking, maybe some seasonal work, along with bartering and making do. People ask after each other’s mothers, and the hardware store is as much a social hall as a store. Lengths of electrical wire are measured not by calculating but by walking the roll out the door and going across the road and stopping traffic. And yes, in other hands, this could be unbearably folksy, but it isn’t for a minute in Minister, thanks to Winter’s stringently unsentimental writing.

The book’s central metaphor, in which Henry attempts to build a life by building a house, is the kind of trope that is easy to overuse. It works for Winter, mostly because there is heft and specificity to the descriptions of the labour. Henry and his hundred people actually know how to do stuff, and that includes digging up sod, ripping off rotting roofs and building a chimney out of reclaimed bricks. There is also a terrifying incident involving Henry and an industrial garbage incinerator that could seem like improbably too much, not just metaphorically but in actuality—except that it really did happen to Winter. (A fact-based version can be found in Walrus magazine.) As Winter suggests in the title of his first full-length work, This All Happened: A Fictional Memoir, and in his recent The Death of Donna Whalen, a narrative constructed from the documents of a true crime, the relationship between art and life is unpredictable and hard to pin down.

Winter tends to keep the reader at a distance, but not out of meanness. His prose is terse, sparsely punctuated and ruthlessly disciplined. With his stripped-down style and stoic characters, he is commonly compared to Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Like most literary comparisons, these connections are both handy and tricky.

The simplicity that in Hemingway can veer toward self-seriousness is here cut with deadpan Newfoundland humour, especially in the dialogue. Even more importantly, Winter uses this style, which is often characterized as “masculine,” toward different ends. What happens in Afghanistan is what Henry himself calls “a triggering event.” Minister is much more about the war’s emotional aftermath, about all that Henry is unable or unwilling to talk about, the experience of violence surfacing into the everyday in the form of muted post-traumatic stress. Afghanistan follows him in small things, in the feel of a rutted road or the smell of burning trash.

Similarly, while the novel spends a brief time looking at “men without women,” it is much more about a man trying, gingerly, to make his way toward a meaningful life with a woman. Winter is interested in the twinned compulsions, in both men and women, “to stay and to leave.” What ends up defining Henry as a man isn’t the war but the peace. In some ways, the novel’s epilogue feels like a response to the ending of Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. Emotionally resonant and sneakily optimistic, Minister Without Portfolio is about the courage needed to settle into the quotidian obligations of family and home.

Hamish Hamilton | 336 pages |  $30.00 | cloth | ISBN #978-0670067152



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