by Edith Cody-Rice
Wayne Johnston’s characters jump from the page the minute you open the cover. That is one of his great talents. He engages his reader from the first moment and he is a fine writer. Son of a Certain Woman set out, as he stated in an interview in Hazlitt, Random House’s online magazine, to do for St. John’s Newfoundland what Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses had done for Dublin. Joyce’s Ulysses follows its characters through a single day in Dublin, Ireland laying out its physical, emotional and psychological landscape. Johnston’s Son of a Certain Woman sets out to do the same, using Ulysses as a framework. Even the characters are versions of Ulysses‘ characters. Percy Joyce has elements of Ulysses‘ Stephen Dedalus, his mother Penelope is alternately the incarnation of the genius Leopold Bloom and his wife Molly Bloom. And then there is the Newfoundland city of St. John’s, quintessentially Irish and oppressively Catholic in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Teenage Percy Joyce, the novel’s principal protagonist and narrator, is a triple outcast from birth. His mother, the sensually beautiful Penelope, is unmarried, her fiancé Jim Joyce having fled St. John’s when she was two months’ pregnant. Percy is physically disfigured from birth, his face covered with a large port wine stain and his hands and feet abnormally large, a condition which separates him from his peers and the rest of society. He is also unbaptized, a social sin of significant proportions in the catholic diocese in which they live. And they are steeped in Catholicism, much of it nasty and hypocritical. They live down the street from the basilica, across the street from a Catholic school, attended by Percy, in the midst of six other Catholic schools, and across the street from the residence of the Christian brothers. Penelope types for the Archbishop and has a boarder who teaches at Percy’s Catholic school. All the males on the Mount, Percy’s neighbourhood, lust after the seductive Penelope
In this oppressive atmosphere, Penelope stays defiantly unmarried and antichurch, refusing to attend or to let Percy attend the basilica. This, and his deformity spur the Archbishop to take Percy under his wing, protecting him from the savage brutality that could be meted out by the sadistic Christian brother McHugh and by other students.
By themselves these are the elements of a stellar story, but there is more. Percy’s mother, who still wears her engagement ring to ward off suitors is actually a lesbian in love with her fiancé’s sister Medina who practically lives at her house and Penelope has scheduled bouts of sex with the boarder, Pops MacDougall, to help out with the mortgage. We must remember that lesbianism was regarded as a perversion and a sin at that time and discovery would condemn the women to the “Mental” (mental hospital) and Percy would be abandoned.
Percy himself is in love with his mother who offers him substitute pictures of women for his teenage masturbation as it appears he may never find a mate. But Percy wants his mother, sexually and towards the end, she promises herself to him (the book ends before the event) in order to prevent him being condemned to a life of celibacy.
Oh, it is all too much and not for the sexually timid. But Penelope is whip smart and witty and the household conversations sparkle. She stands her ground too, backhanding a jeering student who dares ask what she can do to him. Both Percy and his mother are the smartest people on the Mount and their observations are cracking.
The book brilliantly sends up the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Catholic church and its minions who dominated life in Newfoundland. There is the sanctimonious Mother Superior Celestine, who it turns out, is a sadistic beater of children and Brother McHugh who hates Percy, but because of the Archbishop dare not touch him, unless he can do so without outward signs (which he does) and, we suspect, lusts after his mother.
But…. it is not Johnston’s best book. He is such a good writer that once you are into it, it is hard to stop reading, but there is, I hesitate to say, just too much sex everywhere. This is probably an accurate reflection of the preoccupations of teenage boys but it begins to have a creepy quality, especially with respect to Percy’s relationship with his mother. As always, Johnston evokes his setting and characters in a compelling way, but Colony of Unrequited Dreams is still, in my opinion, far and away his best work.