Journalism has become the cutting edge of language. Even literary writers have tacitly acknowledged this, as many of them swing to speedier, more streamlined styles. Against this background, Kingston novelist and poet David Helwig has always been something of an anomaly. Bucking all trends, he has persisted in measuring and polishing his sentences as if how he speaks actually matters. He is also a humanist who eschews sensational violence and melodrama, cultivating a tone of calm sanity that is the very model of a civilized voice.
THE KING’S EVIL by David Helwig
(Oberon, $15.50 hard-cover,
The beleaguered hero of his latest novel, The King's Evil, shares his creator’s biases. Dross is a CBC radio producer who is becoming an anachronism: a target for the “New Men” in management whose emphasis on high ratings and slick, American-style programming spell the end for Dross’s quiet forays into history, philosophy and drama. Worse, his lover—who had run off with the leader of the New Men —dies of cancer, leaving Dross desperate, his mental health crumbling. He takes an extended leave of absence from the network, and for most of the novel pursues the tortured ghost of his own sanity.
It proves an elusive ghost. The death of his lover has “taken his facts away.” And as Dross himself writes in his diary: “something hangs on the difference between what is and what is not. Otherwise we would be at sea among impressions. Fact is the one defence against solipsism.”
The novel becomes something of a solipsist’s nightmare, for the reader is largely confined to the mists that inhabit Dross’s skull. Did his lover really love him, or was she always holding the most precious gifts back in the hope of meeting an ideal man? Dross is fat and cursed with an undersized penis, while his rival has a “mighty tool like a rod of iron.” Small wonder the man withdraws. This is a novel not just of isolation, but of introversion. Events are not so much experienced as filtered through protective layers of memory and thought. Luckily, Dross has interesting thoughts; some of his observations achieve the piquancy of epigram. Too
often, in fact, he seems not mad at all, but a balanced, scholarly intelligence enjoying the paradoxes of madness, trying them on like masks.
Mercifully, his search for wholeness finds a focus outside himself. While house-sitting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., he finds an old copy of Eikon Basilika, a memoir of Charles I of England. Charles makes an ideal hero for Dross, for wasn’t the monarch besieged by the grey-souled New Men of his own day, Cromwell’s Puritans? Dross goes on to concoct the theory that Charles was not really beheaded, as history claims, but escaped to North America while his
place at the block was taken by a disguised royalist. He follows the negligible evidence with a madman’s fervor through archives in Canada and the United States, and finally arrives in England, where he gains access to the private library of Lord Firebrace, a descendant of the man Dross believes helped Charles escape. The final scenes where Dross interviews the dying lord, hoping to coax the family secret from him, are beautifully realized. Dross eventually gets his secret, and while it is not the one he hoped for, it proves far more valuable in his search for himself.
Considering its brief length, this is an astonishingly ambitious and rich novel. It reverberates on so many levels that it is constantly belying the crafted simplicity of its sentences. It is at once an essay on the psychology of human
wholeness, a diatribe against debased artistic standards and a reminder that love is both a healer and destroyer. It is not without its faults: the dream sequences are boring, the symbolism sometimes clanks a little too heavily and the ending is overly neat. But it is Helwig’s best, a convincing fusion of high emotion and intelligence that only a New Man could fail to enjoy.
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