Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Big Why by Michael Winter

The Big Why is a sensual fictionalized journal of real-life artist Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), covering the time in his early thirties when he lived in Newfoundland. It was shortly before the start of the first world war when Kent decided to move from New York City to the little town of Brigus, where only one house had indoor plumbing. Kent lived in a tent inside an abandoned cottage while he fixed the place up before sending for his wife and children.

Life in Brigus was austere for everyone, since fishing and sealing were the main occupations. There is a strong contrast, however, between the cultural attitudes and outlook of Kent as compared to his Newfoundland neighbours. These differences, together with Kent's inability to be faithful to his wife, provide the tension in the story. It's a character study of an artistic temperament, an idealistic man who has trouble curbing his impulses. After Kent has left Newfoundland, he has a conversation with his friend Bob Bartlett, a polar explorer who also lived in Brigus:
     "The question is not, he said, were you loved. Or did you love. Or did you love yourself. Or did you allow love to move you, though that's a big one. Move you. The question, Rockwell, is did you get to be who you are. And if not, then why. That, my friend, is the big why."
It's telling that this speech comes from Bartlett, who is identified as an "invert" (gay) in the book.

I loved the Newfoundland vocabulary and expressions, like boo-darbies (fairies), the dunch (numbness), measuring in quintals (114 pounds), swiling (hunting for seals) on swatchy ice in a clever boat, walking in your softs (barefoot) and making fish (preserving salt cod) on flakes.

It doesn't help to clarify the difference between a dory and a skiff, but this bit of dialogue between a couple of teens watching a small boat is entertaining:
     "Tom: Look at that skiff.
     She's a skiff.
     She's a dory, boy.
     Go on, you useless article.
     Look at the rake on her.
     Look at the side, the ramp.
     Okay, a flat.
     She's a dory, okay? A dory.
     What about the V in the back there.
     That's a little skiffish. but she's a dory.
     What about --
     Ah shut your face.
     Go fuck yourself."

Marital infidelity is a theme throughout, and not just between Kent and his wife, Kathleen. The morning after Kent and his best friend Gerald (Kathleen's cousin) have been on a drinking binge in New York:
     "There was a note on the table. His eyes blinking back flashes of wet. He was holding the note.
     I hate it when my wife asks mechanical engineers to go to California with her."

A nonstandard orthography is used throughout the book, with minimal use of apostrophes (i.e. didnt, theyre, wasnt) and no quotation marks to differentiate internal and external dialogue. It took me a little while to get used to this, but it added to the intimate feeling of Kent's journal.

I was pleased to see that both the hardcover and paperback editions of The Big Why have art by Rockwell Kent on the cover. The frank and lusty sensuality in The Big Why reminded me of another historical novel about a real artist, As Above, So Below by Rudy Rucker.

NOTE: Michael Winter has a sibling, Kathleen Winter, who is the author of Annabel.

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