For the Record

The safe and the daring

NICHOLAS JENNINGS June 24 1996
For the Record

The safe and the daring

NICHOLAS JENNINGS June 24 1996

Beautiful losers

HOPE IN THE DESPERATE HOUR By David Adams Richards

(McClelland & Stewart, 223pages, $19.99)

Books

Like malt whiskey or long walks in the rain, the novels of David Adams Richards are an

acquired taste. One of the country’s best writers, he is not among its most popular for the simple reason that his books are so often sad. Set in Richards’s home province of New Brunswick, novels such as Nights Below Station Street (which won a 1988 Governor General’s Award) and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993) ferret out the tragedy in the lives of marginal people— the poor farmers, fishermen and welfare cases who sometimes get put down as “white trash” by the middle class. Richards’s moving new novel,

Hope in the Desperate Hour, concerns a broken-down former hockey player, Garth

Shackle, and his wife, Vicki, a compulsive gambler who gets tied up with a crackpot scheme to bring a casino to the local Indian reserve. Others, too, have been caught in the web of intrigue and dishonesty, including Peter Bathurst, a former Micmac chief who has misappropriated $40,000 of his band’s funds in or-

der to promote the casino—and who, as the novel opens one bleak winter morning in 1994, is facing imminent arrest.

Many other writers have spun fiction around such poor and unhappy people, but what distinguishes Richards is the almost sensual poignancy he brings to his tale. His characters seem so real because they

spring so deeply from their author’s vision, which is rooted in the universal experience of loss. Garth and Vicki and the rest are doomed not merely because they are poor and unlucky—if that were so, Richards’s novels would simply be pleas for social justice—but because in their desperate state they eloquently embody human mortality and the always futile longing to overcome it.

The deft, understated artistry with which Richards conveys his vision is ex-

Doomed characters strike a deep chord

hilarating—and adds a pleasure to the reading of Hope in the Desperate Hour that more than balances its melancholy. He writes in short, trenchant paragraphs that can summarize the tragedy of a person’s life in a few telling words. Description is almost absent from the book, but when it comes, it deepens the

mood with the swift, summarizing power of a Greek chorus: ‘The trees tapped away, at nothing, the last frozen leaves curled like small bats hanging dead on the crooked branches.” The novel has its flaws. The figure of Christopher Wheem,

an academic and failed writer, is burdened with too many of Richards’s pet dislikes (academia, fashions in literature) and sinks into caricature. And by treating such a wide variety of characters, the book never achieves the concentrated focus of For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down. Yet by the time it climaxes in a tragic fire, Hope in the Desperate Hour has spun a beguiling tale.

JOHN BEMROSE