In his memoir of the front-page tragedy that tumbled him from a gilded throne as prince of the city into a windowless jail cell, charged with criminal negligence in the death of bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard, former Ontario Attorney-General Michael Bryant mentions Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities so often the novel earns its own detailed entry in his book’s handy index. Bryant’s insistent point is that the obvious parallel – a charmed life destroyed by a chance car accident with a dangerous lowlife – is false. But despite his considerable best efforts to prove his absolute innocence in that fateful 28-second encounter with a true madman, Bryant never succeeds in erasing the novelistic smear.
Nobody could. The story that fate handed him on an unsavoury platter is not merely the stuff of fiction, it is the stuff of the greatest moral dramas in the literary canon. Its obvious parallel is Wolfe, but its power lies as much in the work of Dickens, Eliot and Conrad.
Readers who make it past Bryant’s zippy first chapter only to encounter 100 plodding pages of political biography might well wish a proper novelist had undertaken the task of telling this most amazing story. But the background does set up the drama to come by showing just how remarkably golden this boy was before his fall: breezing through Osgoode Law School in a drunken haze and amazing fellow students by graduating third in his class, clerking for Supreme Court of Canada Justice Beverley McLachlin, riding into politics and provincial cabinet on a magic carpet of casual, alcohol-fuelled egomania.
But when the real action begins in Chapter Seven – when Bryant for the first time begins to tell his version of what happened in those awful 28 seconds – the story levitates to its rightful plane.
Does any work of fiction revel in an irony more audacious than the fact that Michael Bryant, Supreme Court law clerk, wrote the first draft of a majority decision that considerably toughened the definition of criminal negligence – the very crime Toronto police charged him with as Darcy Sheppard lay bleeding to death on Bloor Street – a charge made all the more credible by his own tough-on-crime jurisprudence?
“It was quite a reckoning,” Bryant writes, recalling the dark thoughts that swarmed his mind as he stared sleeplessly at “the excrement and urine and saliva and pus” lightly painted over the walls of his jail cell.
“Under that paint lay years of mendacity, self-mutilation, beatings, wails, delusional rants, tantrums, weeping, untreated injuries, echoes of babbling drunken tongues, sickness, pain, death, senselessness,” he writes. “That cell was quiet, but I could barely hear above it all.”
The comeuppance of the former chief legal officer of Ontario is as satisfying any anti-establishment reader could hope, and it leaves the unfortunate protagonist with a sharply different view of a process he more than once describes as a “conviction machine.” Bryant expresses anger at the police for laying such heavy charges before properly investigating the incident, and for allegedly failing to contact witnesses who came forward with stories that favoured his defence. But it was his now-former wife, Susan Abramovitch, who reacted most strongly, according to Bryant, becoming openly “contemptuous and fearful about policing in Canada” as a result of the experience.
The ironies multiply: Had the police not hit Bryant with such heavy charges, which special prosecutor Richard Peck ultimately declined to pursue after a months-long investigation involving two dozen police officers and whole teams of top experts (hired at Bryant’s expense), it is quite possible he would have been tried on the lesser charge of dangerous driving. And a trial, Bryant admits, “would have been a disaster for me personally.” Regardless of the result, he writes, the public would conclude “that I was somehow the author of my own misfortune – that somehow I’d done something wrong during those 28 seconds.”
It was the threat of just such a “disaster” – a rigorous trial of the actual facts – that drove Bryant’s defence strategy, led by Toronto lawyer Marie Henein, who boldly revealed evidence collected by her team as it emerged in an effort to forestall further action. “It was an expensive decision,” Bryant writes, involving massive disbursements to every kind of forensic expert and just as much to more experts to “peer review” the first group’s painstaking analysis of every one of those 28 seconds.
The strategy worked. But as a result, no untested first-person account of those 28 seconds will ever suffice to explain exactly what happened. That Bryant and his wife were the innocent victims of a vicious attack is undeniable. But key questions – such as why Bryant attempted to speed off with Sheppard virtually on top of him, grabbing at the steering wheel of his car – remain unanswered. Thus Bryant assumes the role of that other mainstay of great fiction, the unreliable narrator. And he does so with aplomb, his evasions as intriguing as his admissions are heartfelt.
The latter concern not the 28 seconds but rather the author’s former life as an alcoholic. His “first thought” at seeing the inebriated Sheppard weaving along Bloor Street, he writes, was, “Hello, brother. You’re one of us, aren’t you?” His persistent identification with this most downtrodden character helped end his marriage and blessed him with a new cause: a radical reform of the justice system designed to steer alcoholics and addicts out of jails and into the kind of treatment that, Bryant says, saved him from the fate of a Darcy Sheppard.
All very well, but this is still a story about friends in high places. Bryant was virtually smothered with angels during his dark night of the soul – given a job immediately after his arrest by lawyers he didn’t know, unlimited credit to pursue a massively expensive defence and expressions of undying support from politicians and lawyers as various as Michael Ignatieff and Brian Mulroney. Unintentionally, Bryant paints a borderline unseemly picture of the elite protecting its own.
Certainly no Darcy Sheppard could ever hope for such grace, and it casts a shadow on Bryant’s earnest and heartfelt identification with the downtrodden.
Still, there is no question that Bryant is a different man today, genuinely humbled. Such are the changes wrought by all great fiction. But 28 Seconds is far from the last word in the amazing story of Michael Bryant. By chastening him so thoroughly, by forcing him to bare his soul so openly, his angels have transformed him from a callow opportunist into one of Canada’s most compelling political figures. And a pretty good writer to boot.
Make no mistake: He’ll be back.
John Barber is The Globe and Mail’s publishing reporter.