In the professional, though humble (always humble) opinion of this reader, the best all-round novelist at work in Canada today resides in humble (always humble) Saskatoon. And it's not that city's high-concept allegorist I speak of, but the more stylistically humble (always humble) Guy Vanderhaeghe.
His long-time-coming new novel, A Good Man, is the kind of impeccably crafted, Dickensian charmer we have come to expect from Vanderhaeghe's now completed "literary western" trilogy, a collection of thematically if not narratively connected fictions about the death of the wild in the Wild West. This remarkable series (no less important in defining its originating culture than Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End) started with the knockout The Englishman's Boy, raised the bar with the masterpiece The Last Crossing, and now comes to a close with the deeply satisfying A Good Man, a historical novel dealing with ethics, politics and nationhood that is more entertaining than political historical novels about nationhood have any business being.
If A Good Man is the most structurally complex of the trilogy, it also has the most to say about our present realities. It manages to track the ongoing itchiness that plagues our identity from its earliest days to our contemporary split personality, the anxious dance of diplomacy that results from trying to live peaceably to the north of a beast that, for better or worse, was born of ambition and blood.
Wesley Case starts his career as that textbook Canadian hero – a Mountie – but after leaving the police in a cloud of shame, he takes on a job even more essential to our nation's survival: a diplomat. Case's file is strictly unofficial, however, making him more spy than envoy. His job is to trade intelligence between Major Walsh and Major Ilges, the respective Canadian and American commanders of forts that straddle the border. Out on the plains, the "threat" of Sitting Bull and the Sioux waits. But for Case, native warriors aren't the real problem. Rather it's the clash of personalities: Walsh, proud and stubborn, hates Ilges, and vice versa.
As Case moves between these two frontier fortresses, we meet a world of secondary characters, backstories and subplots. While the presumed antagonists are the Sioux and the rising Fenian revolutionaries, the real dynamics are far more nuanced than "bad guys" and "good guys." As with Conrad's The Secret Agent, A Good Man is a novel of early espionage and its engagement with what might be called proto-terrorism. Yet this makes the novel sound unfairly burdensome. For in fact it is, at heart, a novel of character. Three characters, to be precise: Case, Dunne, a gifted thug-for-hire, and the unhappily married, courageous Ada Tarr, for whom the two men, secret agents both, fall.
There are, characteristically, bountiful and varied pleasures to be had in A Good Man. There are the visceral skirmishes in and with the wilderness, Vanderhaeghe's descriptions of the natural world often as striking as Cormac McCarthy's ("Then there is a slow flush of light; a pile of cloud becomes visible in the east, heaped like rumpled bedclothes"). There is the comic banter, the bawdy jokes. There's also effortlessly vivid scene setting, as in a frontier ball where "expansive tracts of bosom are on display, and a constant, coquettish fluttering of painted fans agitates the air." And, of course, the deft physical characterizations ("a softhead, a simpleton who mooned about the hallways … his mouth hanging open slackly as if he were inviting houseflies to lay eggs on his tongue").
As with the preceding two novels, A Good Man doesn't shy from romance, either. The doomed love triangle among Dunne, Case and Ada is believably fierce, organically integrated to the plot and (if I may be forgiven the anachronism) super-hot. Dunne is a dangerous man by training, a giant powered by a midget's heart. When he misinterprets Ada's kindness to him during his employ as bodyguard against anonymous threats, he sets himself upon the tragic course of the obsessive-in-love. On the other hand, Case and Ada's tentative courtship (she is a married woman, after all) is wholly involving, a meeting of characters so well drawn that even their chaste early gestures ("Slowly he lifts her hand to her cheek … she can feel the bones of his face through the kidskin of her glove") deliver delicious shivers.
You don't need to have read The Englishman's Boy and The Last Crossing to understand A Good Man. This is a trilogy of theme and character more than chronology or, in the end, even history. The main thing is that these are novels offering storytelling pleasures so robust that, after reading them, we are reminded how long we have gone without gravy and biscuits and whisky in our all-protein literary diets. A Good Man caps a towering achievement worthy of celebration as loud as our humble (always humble) voices can declare.
Andrew Pyper is the author of five novels, most recently The Guardians.