by Edith Cody-Rice
Punishment is Linden MacIntyre’s fourth novel. His first three comprise the Long Stretch Trilogy that began with 1999’s The Long Stretch, followed by The Bishop’s Man, and concluded with 2012’s Why Men Lie. MacIntyre has won 10 Gemini Awards for his work as well as the 2010 Giller Prize for Canadian fiction for The Bishop’s Man.
As with his first two novels, the setting is Cape Breton, where MacIntyre, in fact, grew up in an isolated community.The themes of the book are outcasts, scapegoating and the consequences of truth and lies. The protagonist of Punishment, Tony Breau. is a former Kingston Penitentiary prison guard who has retired early and retreated to St. Ninian’s, the tiny Cape Breton hamlet where he was raised. To the same tiny community comes Dwayne Strickland, also a native of the community, but as an adopted child in a close knit clannish community, and a reputation as a bad boy when he was growing up, he becomes a focus of community hostility and a natural suspect in the death of a young teenage girl from a drug overdose. Tony understands the problems of an outsider, as he too was adopted into the community. Both Tony and Dwayne are, in their own way, truth tellers, the consequences of which determine aspects of their lives. Tony and Dwayne knew each other as children, but then met again periodically until Dwayne wound up in Kingston as an inmate and Tony as a guard. Both witnessed a prison murder and told the truth – Dwayne about who was responsible, and Tony about his fellow guards who refused to intervene and allowed the prisoner to be killed. As a result, both are in danger because of their lack of “solidarity” with their “communities”: the other prison guards in Tony’s case and other inmates in Dwayne’s.
Early in the book, in a sociology class Tony is taking, the major theme of the book emerges in the context of a text the professor reads aloud:
The more effective any individual or group of individuals is in getting the categories of deviance and crime imputed to others, the more effective he is in getting the categories of morality and law-abiding citizen imputed to himself.
In other words, if you can blame others, you can look better to yourself, wherever the truth may lie.
Back in St. Ninian’s, another community that demands solidarity, the residents coalesce around a conviction of Dwayne Strickland’s guilt, although there is little evidence to assert. The emotional reaction, particularly of one ex-policeman, Neil MacDonald, overrides logic with tragic consequences.
The year is 2003 and in the background is the American TV and radio news that George W. Bush has evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Cape Breton and Iraq play against each other with similar outcomes. Though Neil is totally convinced that Bush is correct and convincing in the presentation to the UN, we now know that Iraq was scapegoated, in a way for 9/11. He was a cruel dictator, to be sure, but he had neither weapons of mass destruction nor anything to do with the attack on the twin towers. Similarly Dwayne, the bad boy outsider, may have been undesirable,but he had nothing to do with the death in the community.
The closing of the novel brings forth a final conundrum. When Tony attempts to tell the truth about Dwayne’s death, he learns a valuable lesson. Sometimes telling the truth doesn’t matter. The end is inevitable, brought about by other forces of which you may be unaware. Sometimes telling the truth is superfluous.
Punishment is published by Random House Canada