Culture  Highway to nowhere

David Adams Richards’s “great Canadian novel” is anything but

David Adams Richards’s latest book The Lost Highway promises a tale of murder, mystery, and tragedy. It’s about a small Canadian community torn apart by a vicious web of family secrets, and the vengeance taken to right a perceived wrong. All the ingredients for a truly brilliant Canadian novel are there; an antihero with everything to prove, a married woman he’s loved from afar since childhood, a tyrannical uncle who denies him everything and whose business he helped ruin, a French murder accomplice, and a lottery ticket worth 13-million dollars. Yes, the plot promises an excellent story. Too bad the author just couldn’t follow up.

The Lost Highway is, to put it simply, a Miramichi, New Brunswick soap opera whose only redeeming factor is its author’s realistic illustration of the abject poverty and despair found within his town. Richards plays with the physical and spiritual consequences of crossing ethical and moral boundaries, but doesn’t make clear what exactly his idea of morality is. His protagonist, Alex Chapman is a small-town Ethics professor at the local community college who fails in every way to follow his own beliefs. He is a failed intellectual, and Richards describes him using every intellectual stereotype known to literature: he is a man both “ineffectual and cowardly,” who wears a corduroy jacket and spouts liberal secular ideals. Unfortunately for the reader, there is absolutely no clear antagonist in this book, nor any real problems, save those that Chapman creates for himself with his obsequious habits and idiotic mannerisms.

For most of the book, it feels as though Richards is flipping backwards and forwards in time not simply to show Alex’s despair and loneliness, but rather to find some clear culprit to blame it all on. His long-winded metaphors and repetition throughout the book only make the reader’s job that much harder. Sometimes Chapman can do no wrong – then he steals from a church. After returning as a failure from university, Richards suddenly announces that Chapman has a talent for sculpting. And, of course, Chapman blames everything and anything on the man who married his childhood sweetheart after he ran away from her. Not only is the reader looking for someone to act as an antagonist, but we feel as though Chapman is, too.

Every few pages he blames someone different: his tyrannical uncle (who later on begins to seem increasingly less tyrannical); the father who abandoned him; Leo Bourque, the man who Chapman caused to lose his job, his wife, and his bank account, in addition to being injured; the daughter of the man he hates and the woman he obsesses over; even June Tucker, the woman who eventually supplants his position at the university due to his own machinations.

Honestly, this book and author were a severe disappointment. It was 393 pages of self-important puttering, and it is most certainly not a “masterwork,” thank you very much, Globe and Mail. Far, far from it. If you want to read a great Canadian novel, look to Findley, Boyden, or Richler instead.

The Lost Highway is available for $14 from Doubleday Canada.