Monday, January 3, 2011

Staff Pick: The Artificial Newfoundlander by Larry Mathews

Hugh Norman, though a longtime resident of St. John's, comes from away and regards Newfoundland, his career and his family with some detachment. Norman is able to both be a part of his worlds and to be an impartial observer. He is a divorced, middle aged English professor who finds his nest is refilling with his adult daughter and her two children. Daughter Emily arrives with the baggage of a failed marriage and a mystery in tow. Why did she leave Vancouver so suddenly, and who is that rude woman who persistently telephones? Amidst his daughter's drama and his own guilt of having rejected her years before, Norman is pursuing his own academic adventure. Alphonsus Cleary is a Newfoundland writer who is seemingly only known to Norman. He vanished years before and Norman believes he may have faked his own death. Norman is very aware that the research he is conducting will probably be appreciated by no one as Cleary's books are out of print and unavailable.

The Artificial Newfoundlander by Larry Mathews is populated by a rich cast of characters and is set in contemporary St. John's. Like a good host, Mathews takes the reader on a tour of St. John's from Quidi Vidi to Signal Hill and finally to the Ship Inn for a beer. The tone is witty and fun, yet the ideas are profound. The novel is constructed around two mysteries, yet the mysteries themselves are somewhat incidental to the exploration of the changing nature of relationships. Like all good campus novels, academic life takes a hit with interminable faculty meetings, petty rivalries and the acknowledgment of research for the sake of research.

The Artificial Newfoundlander brings to mind Straight Man by Richard Russo. "Russo's protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux's reluctance is partly rooted in his character--he is a born anarchist-- and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans. In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television. All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise, and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions. in short, Straight Man is classic Russo--side-splitting and true-to-life, witty, compassionate, and impossible to put down." - publisher

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