The Man with the Coat

Description

159 pages
$18.95
ISBN 0-920428-92-4

Publisher

Year

1987

Contributor

Reviewed by Ronald Conrad

Ronald Conrad is a professor of English at Ryerson University in
Toronto.

Review

Few Canadian writers have been so strongly applauded and denigrated as Morley Callaghan. Edmund Wilson once compared him to Chekov and Turgenev, yet John Metcalf recently dismissed his prose as “pedestrian and plonking.” We might think that changing times have simply made Callaghan less attractive by rendering his moralism — the philosophical basis of his major works — out of style. But the reason is not philosophical; it is technical. As many critics have observed, Callaghan is masterful in short fiction but often shaky in longer work.

The publication in book form of his novella The Man with the Coat, originally published in one issue of Maclean’s in 1955, provides a good opportunity to compare a relatively short work to the longer one he later made of it: The Many Colored Coat (1960). The story is one of confrontation, both legal and pugilistic (Callaghan, as we know, had studied both modes of discourse): an insider stock deal goes wrong, resulting in a court case, a suicide, and finally a terrible enmity between two basically good men each of whom feels wronged by the other.

In obvious ways the two works are similar: characters bear the same names, do most of the same things, and — though one person’s death is transformed in the longer work to a hospital recovery — the plot and its moral import are much the same. The 1960 version (over 300 pages long) strengthens the biblical overtones, develops a few minor characters more fully, invents others, and explains in more depth the major characters’ motivations.

Yet it is the novella that stays with me after I have read them both. Its very shortness seems to have encouraged the economy of detail, the gritty set pieces, the deft characterization and the sense of encircling doom that give it a power far greater than that of its longer cousin.

The best passages of the latter are self-contained, like short stories, while the rest goes plodding on. The trial scene is too long, later scenes merely repeat earlier ones, and — worst of all — characterization suffers. Instead of acting out his fate in character, Harry Lane suddenly collapses from his elegance of person and behaviour to become a “clown” and “laughing-stock.” The Man with the Coat is a minor tragedy; The Many Colored Coat is less than a tragedy, for it has lost its tragic hero.

 

Citation

Callaghan, Morley, “The Man with the Coat,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/34510.