Other Press, 2011
As the title promises, Michael Crummey’s newest novel, Galore, delivers great abundance: of personalities, history, folklore, and vernacular. It is a yarn in the best sense of the word, unspooling over the course of a century in a small Newfoundland fishing village to give us not just the history of a place and its people, but of its storytelling.
The tales start off tall and gradually compact, as the book rolls along, to accommodate the modern age. But the beginning is well-nigh Biblical. A whale washes up on shore one April and a mute, albino-white man tumbles from its slit belly:
The Toucher triplets were poking idly at the massive gut with splitting knives and prongs, dirty seawater pouring from the gash they opened, a crest of blood, a school of undigested capelin and herring, and then the head appeared, the boys screaming and falling away at the sight. It was a human head, the hair bleached white. One pale arm flopped through the ragged incision and dangled into the water.
For a time no one moved or spoke, watching as if they expected the man to stand and walk ashore of his own accord. Devine’s Widow waded over finally to finish the job, the body slipping into the water as she’s cut it free. The Catholics crossed themselves in concert and Jabez Trim said, Naked came I from my mother’s womb.
The stink of fish refuses to wash off him, and though he eventually comes to be called Judah—a compromise between Judas and Jonah, as the matter of who was famously swallowed by the whale is never quite agreed on—for a time he is known only as the stranger. And a stranger he is, not only in his considerable oddness but because he becomes a fulcrum of sorts in the deeply divided community. Paradise Deep is what passes for the village, holding the single store, the docks, and the cove’s only wood-floored house, all the domain of its first settler, King-Me Sellers—so named because of his penchant for cheating at checkers. Separated from the ramshackle town center by a long ridge and scrub forest is the Gut, home to the Irish and the “bushborn.” This is the domain of Devine’s Widow, sworn enemy of King-Me Sellers, midwife, matriarch, perhaps a witch, and her descendants. The two families’ mutual distrust, of course, produces its own kind of passion: Sellers’ daughter and Devine’s Widow’s son manage a long and mostly happy marriage despite the animosity of their parents. And their daughter Mary Tryphena, whose destiny is tangled with Judah’s for most of her life, still carries a flame for King-Me’s grandson, Absalom.
They are split by religion, too—not only the Catholic-Protestant division you’d expect of British and Irish immigrants, but in the ways the old customs are supplanted by the new. When the novel opens, collective belief is embodied in the town’s one incomplete copy of the Bible “recovered from the gullet of a cod the size of a goat,” a sacred apple tree brought over as a sapling from Ireland a hundred years prior, and the charmingly drunken Jesuit, Father Phelan. But the years bring a Catholic priest from St. John’s who excommunicates poor Father Phelan and a series of ill-fated churches of both faiths, each grander than the next. Paradise Deep gets a doctor, and then a union organizer, and a hospital is built, and a union hall. Little by little the old ways give in to the pull of modernity, but at the cost of the community’s animating mystery—Judah’s acceptance first hinges on the sudden change in fishing fortune that coincides with his arrival, but eventually he becomes their sin eater, locked away for a crime he didn’t commit, and it’s clear that the cove’s residents are the poorer for it. If Crummey makes a single misstep structuring the book, it would be in dividing it into two parts; what happens to Paradise Deep and its denizens in that span of time doesn’t need to be spelled out so heavy-handedly. As the old magic gives way to the new commerce, and a year is finally named, rooting the story in history rather than timelessness, it’s clear what we’re being shown. He’s a more skillful writer than that, and his evocations of the ways the past hangs on need no further explanation:
The old hospital had the feel of a place evacuated during an emergency. The air smelled of formaldehyde and disinfectant and chloroform and rot. The margins of each room cluttered with the detritus of thirty years of frontier medicine, outdated equipment, empty glass bottles and stacks of paper, the shards of ten thousand teeth trapped along the baseboards.
Crummey’s descriptions of people and places, thick with the wonderful local dialect and at the same time sinuous and evocative, are what bring Galore its sense of plenty. The cast of characters, with their loves and feuds, is complicated enough that the book leads off with not one but two pages of family trees. This is a beautifully realized, roughshod little world, ruled equally by passion and poverty, magic and religion and merchantry. If these matriarchs and patriarchs and nods to the supernatural conjure up thoughts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that’s all right—the novel’s epigraph is a quote of his: “The invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love.” But here the elements of magic realism are not so much whimsical as utilitarian. Crummey nods to ghosts and spells and moves along; they are no less real than the secret longing his characters each carry in their hearts.
For it’s love in all its guises that fuels the book, that keeps these stuttering, stinking, odd and at the same time thoroughly recognizable characters so mobile. And though Salon’s Good Sex in Fiction Awards have come and gone this year, I’d happily nominate Galore for the running in 2012. Consider, for instance, the good Father Phelan:
Mrs. Gallery’s bed was constructed in the same fashion as the wharves and fish flakes and walls of the tilts, spruce logs skinned of their rind and nailed lengthwise on one side of the room. There was a thick layer of boughs as a mattress and bedding of ancient woolen blankets and a leathery sealskin and underneath it all the heat of Mrs. Gallery. He lifted the covers and crawled in beside her. Her mouth sweet as spruce gum and the skin of her thighs like fresh cream. Mrs. Gallery spread her legs and brought his hand to the wet of her, a little noise at the back of her throat when he found it. —That’s the bowl that never goes empty, Mrs. Gallery, he whispered. —That’s the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. His hand rocking slowly into her and he began talking in Latin, his voice rising enough to be heard through the house as she came for the first time.
And the scene of young Abel Devine’s deflowering by an older woman, late in the book, is nothing but sweet:
They lay nearly naked on the bed afterwards, silent under the weight of what had passed between them. Abel forced himself up on an elbow to look down at her. —Esther, he said, but she placed a finger against his lips. She said, Never tell a woman you love her, Abel.
He stared, his eyes filming over with tears.
—It will always sound like a lie, she said. —Better you let a woman figure it out for herself.
In a book where nearly everything is driven by misplaced love, it’s interesting that two who find some version of happily realized desire are the apostate Catholic priest and the country doctor. A small subtle message: that to gain true love it may prove useful to have a passion above oneself, whether healing or ministering. And another, sadder one: that the truest enemy of love is to live a long life:
The stairs were almost too much for him and he stood on the landing a minute to get his wind. Ambushed by an image of Bride as the cancer dismantled her one organ at a time, the veins showing through her papery skin. The false teeth in her wasted face made her look a corpse in the bed and he’d wished he was dead, watching her leave in so much torment. —I can make it stop, he told her, knowing she’d never consent to such a thing. —When you’re ready.
Bride offering the slightest nod. —Now the once, she said.
It was the oddest expression he’d learned on the shore. Now the once. The present twined with the past to mean soon, a bit later, at some unspecified point in the future. As if it was all the same finally, as if time was a single moment endlessly circling on itself.
In the tale’s final pages, this idea—now the once—assumes majestic proportions. Not only are the places, the characters, and their words rendered deftly and with kindness throughout, even the most unlovable among them, but the bones of the story itself are constructed with a master craftsman’s skill. This yarn unspools with joy even as it winds itself into a new ball, and the reader is rewarded, at the very end, with a startling, elegant symmetry. Galore is indeed full, stuffed to bursting with humanity, and Michael Crummey has done the citizens of Paradise Deep justice.