Linden MacIntyre is talking about his new novel, but Jian Ghomeshi keeps getting in the way.
This is a little more than a week ago. MacIntyre is in his publisher's office in downtown Toronto, sipping a mid-morning coffee – well, more accurately, he's not so much sipping as using the nearly full cup, fetched from nearby café Mercatto, as a prop to emphasize his thoughts: thwunk, thwunk, it goes on the table, every time he makes a point. And he's got a lot of points to make.
Take the plot of Punishment, MacIntyre's first novel since wrapping up his Cape Breton trilogy, whose middle instalment, The Bishop's Man, won him the 2009 Giller Prize. In the new book, Tony Breau, a newly divorced and freshly retired corrections officer, drifts back to his hometown of St. Ninian, N.S., as the village is mourning a local teen. The girl was found dead of a drug overdose on the couch of an ex-con, Dwayne Strickland, who had recently returned home after doing hard time. Faced with a bad seed in their midst – just as important, a bad seed who was adopted, and is therefore perceived as an outsider – the villagers don't care whether the girl's death is actually Strickland's fault: His mere presence is an affront to their small-town values. Legal guilt is just a technicality.
"The preferred 'truth' of any miserable situation is that it can be isolated to an evil person," MacIntyre notes. "It answers everything, because people want to be reassured by the explanation of a bad situation. People in a family want to be reassured that it was not because of some dysfunction in the family. People in the community want to be reassured that it's not because of the breakdown of 'community values' or traditions."
He's talking about Punishment, but he might just as well have been referring to the way CBC has positioned Ghomeshi over the past month: as the lone bad seed in an otherwise upstanding organization.
While the truth of that is still to be determined by a third-party investigation, the central issue explodes into view a few days later, when The Globe publishes other comments MacIntyre makes here, ill-advisedly comparing Peter Mansbridge and the late Peter Gzowski to Ghomeshi. He quickly retracts the remark and apologizes for it, but CBC managers make matters worse, attempting to bar him and his final The Fifth Estate report from the network; some staff take that as a warning to remain silent during the Ghomeshi investigation.
Here's the weird thing: MacIntyre had a very different news story in mind when he was writing Punishment. The novel is set predominantly between late 2002 and early 2003, when the U.S. government built a justification for its looming invasion of Iraq on shoddy evidence – later proved false – of that country's weapons of mass destruction program. As with St. Ninian and Strickland, in the rush to war, the matter of Iraq's actual legal guilt was just a technicality.
"By and large, if I have to base my rational judgment on the basis of the court of public opinion or the court of law, I'm going to take the court of law," MacIntyre says, with a coffee cup thwunk. "But that isn't always the case. And it is being dangerously monkeyed with now by the present government in Ottawa: This entire law-and-order mantra that they keep talking about – 'safe communities.' I don't know what they're talking about. Communities are safe, or safer than they've ever been, and they'll never be entirely safe. Not as long as people are capable of doing bad things.
"So, it's a dangerous attempt to cultivate fear in society, in the same way the Bush administration cultivated fear, and justified a war that has ruined the rest of my life, and possibly the rest of your life, in terms of the stability of the world."
While the novel may be rooted in a particular time and place, it aims for something universal. At one point, the protagonist Breau recalls that someone in the corrections system told him that "evil is an adverb." People, that is, may do evil things; but they themselves are not evil.
"If there's one thing I would like people to walk away [with from this book], aggravating their consciences, it's that thought," he says.
Over the course of his career, MacIntyre says, he has met people who have committed horrific crimes: atrocities, even. "But you get to know them, and you realize that they've done some nice things. They're capable of empathy and sympathy and kindness. And then you meet these, like, saintly people – Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa, all that stuff – and you strip away a lot of the gloss and the mythology: They've done some shitty things and they're capable of being small-minded, venal and vengeful. So you say: 'What am I left with here?'
"I'm always more interested in the people who do bad things, and I believe it's essential, if we're ever going to know why they do bad things, we have to move away from [seeing] this wall that makes them different from us. They're the same as us."
MacIntyre will continue to explore some of these themes with his next novel: Most days, he's at his desk by 5:30 a.m., with a cup of tea and fresh determination. Still, he knows it'll take some adjustment, now that he's left CBC. He admits that, while it was the right decision, there is sadness.
"You come out of a place where you've worked 38 years, you come out of a show you've worked on for 24 years, and you step out and you realize that, for better or for worse, pretty near everybody that matters in my life, pretty near anybody I know, is in there." He exhales with what sounds like a breathy laugh, but it's really more of a sharp deflation. Then he thwunks his coffee cup on the table. "And I'm not allowed back in any more."