Dave Purcell is a post-moratorium Newfoundlander. His first job, as a fisheries department policy analyst, vanished when the cod did. As Rare Birds opens, this thirtysomething St. John’s resident is unscrewing a jar of the delicacy confit de canard at The Auk, a restaurant he owns on the outskirts of town. His wife recently decamped to join a right-wing think-tank in Washington; occasionally he spots her on TV, “selfassuredly explaining why it was a good thing, a stability thing, or a confidence thing, that most of the world’s wealth was in the hands of only twelve families.” With The Auk about to go belly-up, Dave’s only recourse, he reckons while uncorking a bottle of Haut-Brion ’78 and spooning out the confit, is to eat and drink his revenge on the bank.
Enter Phonse, known formally as Alphonse Murphy. He is an eccentric friend and neighbor, as well as the brilliant inventor of a small recreational submarine he’s convinced tourists will go crazy for.
Phonse comes up with an ingenious scheme for luring customers to the inconveniently located Auk, most particularly bird-watchers. Customers flock in—as does Alice, Phonse’s gorgeous sister-in-law, who turns out to be a whiz at waitressing. Dave is able to restock his supplies of Haut-Brion while falling in lust with Alice.
Then things start to fall apart for Dave. So, unfortunately, does the last part of the book, in which St. John’s author Riche loses his way amid a convoluted conspiratorial plot involving cocaine, CSIS spooks and mysterious Russians.
Long before that, though, readers will be hooting out loud. In his debut novel, Riche, who scripted the hilarious 1992 cult film The Secret Nation and co-writes CBC Radio’s The Great Eastern, displays a flair for hip urban social comedy. St. John’s trendies go in for fancy four-wheel-drive vehicles, and when they do up their Victorian houses, they decorate their bathrooms with antique chamber pots filled with potpourri. Those of Irish ancestry celebrate it by burdening their daughters with modish Gaelic names like Damhnait and Sinead.
Riche is also adept at describing his home town. “Its streets are a senseless maze, like the map of a drunk’s progress. Its wooden row houses are painted the most audacious colors . . . [but! the
real townies knew better. They knew that St. John’s was, beneath the pink and powder-blue paint, the political capital of a 400-year legacy of misery and deprivation, a desperate colonial outpost of missed opportunities.”
A side benefit of Rare Birds is that it’s a foodie's paradise. Riche writes about cooking rhapsodically and a bit lasciviously. When Dave sets out to seduce Alice, he feeds her precious Ossetra caviar, follows with partridge simmered for double effect in tart partridgeberry sauce, winds up with “a simple selection of ripe pineapple and mango chunks, sprayed with lime juice and ever so faintly dusted with cayenne (an old trick) and suggestively runny, creamy, salty Camembert on the side.”
No wonder Riche made his hero a restaurateur. To a vintage Cabot year for Newfoundland novels also including Kevin Major’s Gaffer and Patrick Kavanagh’s Gaff Topsails, Rare Birds is a saucy finale—though not really an unexpected one, given all the raunchy comic energy endemic to Newfoundland in the '90s. Now, if only there were a bistro called The Auk on the fringes of St. John’s.
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