David Adams Richards, prizewinning author of Mercy Among the Children and God Is, has argued that we live in a society where you can scarcely mention your religious beliefs in “progressive” circles without being attacked or mocked. Crimes Against My Brother, his latest, highly readable novel, will probably invite the charge of didacticism levelled at some of his other books. But this work offers an artistically pleasing retort: an inextricable link between the moral history of three impoverished young men in rural New Brunswick, who “cut for blood” and scoff at divine law, and an environmental narrative involving the corporate “cut” of Bonny Joyce, the forested, riverine land which their families have lived on for generations.
Ian Preston, Evan Young, and Harold Dew are cousins desperate to escape their poverty, all eyeing the savings of a lonely old relative. Ian and Harold love the same girl, an amoral beauty named Annette Brideau. After Ian obtains the coveted hoard as a loan and begins to realize his ambitions, including marrying Annette, the grievances between these old friends deepen, eventually impacting the interests of the entire region. Ian’s battle to prevent the cutting of Bonny Joyce, land once protected by the government, is undermined by a community set against him by events stemming from his good fortune – that is, from his abandonment of others. If the religious narrative here is didactic, then so is the “progressive” one; the rifts between the blood brothers, who swore loyalty to each other but none to God, inevitably lead to the gutting of an environmental heritage that sustains all.
Superficially, Richards does organize his universe to conform to certain ideas. Foreign influences are invariably suspect. A Dutch-Finnish company called Helinkiscor, manned by men in overshoes who say things like “Don’t give a hell’s bells!,” manipulates the New Brunswick government into betraying its own people, who have been misled with promises of secure jobs. One company man from Quebec, we are pointedly told, wears a fez.
His plot lines can also be laughably contrived. Evan Young’s life is nearly ruined after he slips on a wrench left at a worksite by his brother-in-law, Corky Thorn. Fearing punishment, Corky hides the wrench, and Evan is denied benefits. But the guilt-ridden Corky dies when he backs into a snow plow while fleeing Evan, whose boisterous warning Corky mistakes for animosity. The wrench makes its tortuous way to Harold, who hides it, planning to cast blame on Evan for an unsolved murder. Harold is shot while trying to wrestle the wrench away from his honest wife, who he wooed with a hat made of fur pelts trapped by Evan. In summary, everyone eventually gets his due, often via supernaturally directed objects.
Yet this obviousness does not detract, and sometimes seems distinct, from Richards’s vision. Coming upon some of his passages is like catching glimpses of the Pole star; there is a life in them that we know is instructive. “And he realized, as most of us do sooner or later, that the inner man was where the real struggle was, and in everyone’s life, there is at least one wrench,” writes Richards of Corky, and we forgive him the snow plow, the avenging fur pelts, for we are busy thinking about our wrench. Even in some of Richards’s darkest statements – “It is dangerous not to think of your friends as your greatest enemies” – one discerns someone willing to voice our worst suspicions, rather than win us over with false sparkle, and understands that anyone left alone can find comfort in such plain-speaking spurs to self-examination.
This same quality allows Richards to elicit empathy for very minor characters in a couple of hard sentences, as with Pint McGraw, a boy who dies alone in hospital: “Pint never had his own room. He never had a birthday party.” His larger characters, like Evan Young, are gut-wrenching studies in solitary resilience: “He was in a bad way, unrecognized by millions of citizens in Canada.” It is not their poverty that we are awakened to, but their struggle to become. Richards’s people are great sufferers in a cosmic drama, though they may have done little, and hardly left home.
We see in them some irreducible, unrecognized element in our own selves, and are invited to suffer with them, rather than to feel social “concern.” Crimes Against My Brother suggests that all social contracts must, to hold true, be grounded in a deeper contract; to cut for blood merely is, metaphorically, to end up cutting Bonny Joyce. The didacticism in this book is caducous, and the insularity we find in the details is not in the whole. Richards’s work is powerful because it issues a call to spiritual brotherhood, the kind that presupposes either a God or his tragic absence.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer and editor living in Toronto.