Friday, October 02, 2009

Reader's Diary #528- Kenneth J Harvey: Blackstrap Hawco

While many reviewers placed Blackstrap Hawco in their top favourites of 2008, I'd call it the "book that almost did me in, in 2009."

Having started this book way back in August, it should come as no surprise that reading it was no easy task. For anyone that's ever read it, it would also come as no surprise that I found it to be a difficult read. I'm sure Harvey himself would consider it challenging.

Such books normally go one of two ways: readers resent the work or they are filled with a sense of accomplishment. I wouldn't go as far as saying I resent my time spent with this novel, but I think a lot of it was unnecessary. It's probably one of the most excessive books I've ever read.

Too long: At 829 pages, it's not the longest book I've ever read but at times it felt like it. Earlier this year I interviewed Michael Crummey about his novel Galore. Asking him why he chose to end the book where he did, he commented that he hadn't been interested in writing a 600 page novel. This decision meant that his novel, which had included so many important points in Newfoundland's earlier history, would not include any of the more recent, but equally important, history such as Joey Smallwood's resettlement plan, the cod moratorium, and so on. Harvey did not skimp on the details, and it makes me respect Crummey's book all the more. Blackstrap Hawco overdoses on Newfoundland history. That, combined with an unbelievable propensity for getting into trouble, gives the title character an identity somewhere between Forrest Gump and Wile E. Coyote, but without the humour of either.

Too experimental: At times told in a stream of consciousness, at times foregoing capitals, at times using only sentence fragments, at times writing in short hand, and so on, it's way too tedious, distracting, and unnecessary. I enjoy it when authors take some risks, especially when I can see a point. Jose Saramago's lack of quotation marks in Blindness worked for me. In The Road, Cormac McCarthy's removal of the apostrophe in negative contractions worked for me. I didn't get Harvey's many, many points.

Too cynical: Of course not everyone is warm-hearted, happy and fun-loving in Newfoundland as the tourism ads would have you believe. Clearly Harvey has a contempt for the pedestal our culture's been placed on. I've never been comfortable with it either. However, there was so much anger, greed, violence, sadness, incest, dishonesty, abuse, resentment, et cetera in this book that it was depressing... until I decided that Harvey's depiction is equally untrue.

In the second half of the book Harvey toned down all the above somewhat and it was enough to convince me to give him another chance. When showing some restraint, I enjoyed his writing and found some of it quite evocative. Still, that first half was painful.


Kate said...

OK - I think that I'll skip this one! I do have a copy of Galore in my library waiting to be read though...

Wanda said...

Considerably shorter at 288 pages, I'm glad to be going with 'Inside' as my first go around with this author a little later on for your cbc3 challenge.

"Of course not everyone is warm-hearted, happy and fun-loving in Newfoundland ... lol, you don't exactly buck the stereotype, John! Yes, I'm sure you can get cranky (God knows my grandfather could!), I've even read that in the odd post or response here on your blog but I tend to think of you in the more "traditional" sense of Newfoundlander, at least the happy and fun-loving part. Wasn't that you smiling in all those travelouge and author convention/poetry reading pics? ;)

I got Galore for my bd, can my kids take a hint or what?! :)

Unknown said...

Ouch! It's hard to get through a book that plays with unusual formats if the story itself doesn't zip along. Na Le does it in a couple of his short stories in his book "The Boat," but it works because the stories are short and they move quickly. To do it in a 800+ page book sounds brutal. Thanks for the great review!

John Mutford said...

Kate: Yes, read that one! You know, from my impressions the Newfoundland writing community is pretty tight-- I'd venture to guess that neither man would appreciate me pitting their books against one another. Really, they're two very different books and no doubt both authors had very different goals in mind.

Wanda: I still want to read that one. And "The Town That Forgot How To Breath" sounds good, too.

As for me smiling in all those photos? What can I say-- no one takes my picture when I'm frowning or going on an angry rant.

Chad: I could handle it in short stories. That way at least there's a reprieve.

Luanne said...

There was an ARC of this available at work and I thought long and hard about taking it, but wondered if I could fulfill the commmittment to finish such a tome. Thank you John for finishing it - I don't think I would have....

Teddy Rose said...

Yikes, I actually won this book through the Casnadian Book Challenge 2. Now I'm really scared to pick it up.

I recently got Galore and Michael Crummy was here in Vancouver so I got it signed. It was very exciting for me. I LOVED The River Thieves and really liked the Wreckage.