Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation

Description

192 pages
$9.95
ISBN 0-919001-37-8
DDC C813

Publisher

Year

1987

Contributor

Reviewed by William Blackburn

William Blackburn is a professor of English at the University of
Calgary.

Review

If ever a man needed a miracle, that man is the anonymous forty-five-year-old hero of this novel. Our hero — not quite anonymous, for we know he was named after his father — has lived for the last nine years in the room in Charlottetown where his alcoholic father was killed in a drunken quarrel. Divorced and childless, a failure as a husband, a high school teacher, and a postal worker, he struggles to complete his second novel, The Freedom of Pain. (His first, The Incurable Stubbornness of God, has of course been universally rejected.) Meaningless pain humiliates him. He falls in love with a young actress — only to learn she is living with another man. His room is infested with mice — and he loses a toe to one of his own mousetraps. He perseveres in his endlessly frustrated attempts to help the other rejects and zanies who inhabit his rooming house. He has “no antidote to existence — except writing, perhaps” — but all he can get published are letters to the editor of the local paper; at this he is stunningly successful, having published over 200. “Refusing to be intimidated by memory and the past,” he fights a losing battle against failure, alcoholism, loneliness, despair, and the maelstrom of his father’s example; as he endlessly seeks “one feast, one house, one mutual happiness” in the barren Cradle of Confederation.

That one can be desolate even in Charlottetown is hardly news to readers of modern Canadian fiction (as Camus aptly remarked: for most of us, cities are the only deserts within our means). What is news — and very good news indeed — is the wit, sensitivity, and trenchant humour which J.J. Steinfeld brings to the task of describing the dunes of Prince Edward Island. Altogether too much modern fiction reminds one of late Wagner played by an orchestra of arthritic elephants. Steinfeld is all strings and woodwinds, without a taint of the solemnity that clanks and clangs and crashes its merciless way throughout so much contemporary writing. His understanding of grotesquerie — the inevitable eternal marriage of the shattering and ludicrous in human life — is brilliantly conveyed through masterly understatement, with a lightness of touch as moving as it is delicate. Steinfeld’s Everyman, in the prison of his days, somehow preserves and nourishes the miracle of love for his fellow sufferers; in this very, very fine novel, his courage and his concern find a fitting monument.

 

Citation

Steinfeld, J.J., “Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/34574.