1904 Quiet detail within a stylistic mix
The Sum of One Man’s Pleasure
By Danial Neil
Edmonton, AB: NeWest Press, 2023
$22.95 / 9781774390788
Reviewed by W.H. New
The narrator of Danial Neil’s sixth novel, The Sum of One Man’s Pleasure, is an Irish-born Canadian named Finn Kenny, who has come to a point when he feels he must make his own story clear. What transpires is something of a first-person fast history of 20th-century events from the 1940s to the 1960s: Finn Kenny has experienced a shipwreck in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, success as an Ottawa bureaucrat, shame and dismissal (after the RCMP’s McCarthyite tactics falsely ‘expose’ him as a homosexual Communist), flight to the Cowichan Valley where he hides as the gardener on a lumber baron’s Spencerwood estate, friendship with the Bishops (estate workers who are Black descendants of the Salt Spring Island community that had been invited north by Sir James Douglas in 1858), the enmity of arrogant Lady Spencer, the undeserved caustic hostility of the town (named Fawn Hill), and finally some level of reconciliation with self and sundry. Along the way the reader will also hear about the death of John F. Kennedy, the voice of Martin Luther King, sawmill chicanery, rape, incest, numerous other characters, race relations, domestic harmony, nepotism, cost accounting, illness, reconciliation, and fishing.
The fishing episode (Neil’s book pays tribute to naturalist Roderick Haig-Brown) happens in Chapter Seven, when Bishop and Finn leave their estate duties and head into a local river: the writing here is lively, the author’s love of the sport of fly-fishing clear, the actions of the characters observed in quiet detail. The narrative also picks up pace towards the end of the book, when Finn’s impassioned personal statement (from the pulpit of the Anglican church) causes the community to turn away from gossip and at the same time spurs Lady Spencer to find her own humanity at last.
Yet the novel on the whole reads rather more loosely, as if it were a compilation of literary conventions: war story, spy thriller, domestic drama, TV romance, corporate office serial, off-camera affair, political exposé. Perhaps this stylistic mix was a deliberate decision on the Nanaimo, BC-based author’s part, to demonstrate Finn’s sequential search among formats for a right way to tell his story, but there is little evidence of such a metatextual intent, and various other decisions intrude.
Well intentioned, the title nevertheless aspires to more than it readily conveys, and separate scenes vary in impact. For lay speaker Finn to be orating from the pulpit rather than the lectern in an Anglican church seems unlikely, for example (though in a small church the lectern may function as pulpit as well). Giving a minor character, late in the story, the throwaway name ‘Grubby Smith’ reads like a joke gone awry in a novel that has spent more obvious care with mid-century names. The style—especially in the opening chapters, where another edit might have usefully invigorated the action—seems overly reliant on adjectives as it tries to establish a dramatic tension. And while the antagonist character Lady Spencer seems intentionally designed to distort West Coast social niceties in the 1950s—the reader is later told that her title is nothing but “air”—the decision to use this name (the early title of Diana Spencer, later the Princess of Wales) perhaps inadvertently introduces a gratuitous echo.
The novel does raise serious issues—race relations, gendered roles, corrupt power, the subversive reach of McCarthyite tactics into Canada in the 1940s and 1950s, the fact that the Spencerwood estate appears to extend across Salish lands, and more—but these are mainly cast as background. The focus remains on the character Finn Kenny, whose real trials occupy the book but never quite transcend the fictional forms on which he relies. Readers may well find the strongest sections of the book to be those that so lovingly depict the Cowichan Valley itself.
W.H. (William) New has written five books for children, including The Year I Was Grounded (Tradewind, 2009), and he has written widely on short fiction in Canada, Australasia, and elsewhere. His most recent books include Neighbours (2017) and In the Plague Year (Rock’s Mills Press, 2021), reviewed here by Gary Geddes. [Editor’s note: William New has recently reviewed books by Yasuko Thanh, Carrie Mac, Corinna Chong, Robert Chursinoff, Harold Macy, Paul Sunga, Emily St. John Mandel, and Tamas Dobozy for BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster