I’ve never done book clubs before, but last weekend while buying a disc of the soundtrack of Beowulf the King, I bumped into old friends and they invited me to join theirs this Saturday night and the book seemed like an interesting possibility so . . .
The Chapters-Indigo website said there were two copies of Stephens Gerard Malone’s Big Town: a novel of Africville in stock. I went down to the store and immediately went to the Fiction/Literature section. No sign of it in the M section. “Maybe it’s in G” I thought. Nope. I turned to the handy computer which told me that yes, there was still one copy left: in the “Local Interest” section. I’m not sure how a work of fiction set in Halifax counts as Local Interest in Edmonton, but, after wandering about for a bit I found the Local Interest shelf, and, after getting down on my hands and knees, I found the single copy I was looking for. I also picked up a copy of the Arden Third Series edition of The Merchant of Venice. That find may or may not be relevant.
Big Town is a quick read, but it’s beautifully dense. Malone evokes the time most wonderfully — I was struck by the offhand mention in the first chapter of Good Friday always being overcast, something I always heard my mother say when I was a kid. I’m sad to say that actually, Good Friday is sometimes sunny. And the Halifax explosion is alluded to several times with personal detail rather than the big picture. And Date Squares, for goodness sake! And the bullying Early endures brings back sad memories of witnessing those big boys throwing stones at the boy with Downs Syndrome beside Walford Road in Sudbury. Malone uses little details like what television show Chub watches or what now-gone street the boys walk up, details a youngster pays attention to, to make Africville and Halifax palpable.
Chapter two, with Early at work and going to lunch with his found five dollars filled me with the question How do they think? What is the inner life of the intellectually disabled? I’ve spent eighteen years with my own Early and I’m still not sure at all. And I’ve spent years with all sorts of different young people who aren’t what are sometimes termed “Neuronormal” Every one is different and every day for any one is different. I’m not sure whether the depiction of Early’s inner life is realistic. Who can know? But Big Town asks the question of us.
The abuse of Early is, of course, particularly uncomfortable. For the most part, rather than explicitly depicted, it is evoked, as in the moment on page 31 when Early rubs his arm after contemplating doing a chore for his father. As the novel progresses, the abuse becomes more and more clear and it seems to me Early’s reaction to it becomes more and more ambiguous as his memory problems come more to the fore.
Racism is an obvious theme in Big Town. The expected racism of White Halifax against the people of Africville goes without saying, but there are more subtle layers of racism that must be mentioned. On p. 42, Mrs. Aada laments the (white) Trash that’s come squatting and “giving good folks a bad name”. Whites over Blacks over White Trash over — what? Well, over Early, of course. Is there anyone below Early? Early certainly doesn’t discriminate, but in another throw away line Malone has the children planning their lives as Forest Rangers and — “Early could be Indian Joe” (p. 201). Maybe mentally disabled Early isn’t “better” than Indian Joe, but in 60s Canada, the people who would come to be called the First Nations are thought of at best as dimwitted helpers. Malone has packed so much tension into Big Town!
Throughout I thought of Steinbeck. Tortilla Flat came to mind quickly, but Malone is more sensitive to his characters, I think. The workers in Tortilla Flat have a little to much of the bumbkin about them. And, the relationship between Toby and Early can’t help but be seen as an allusion to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with a profound roll reversal near the end.
Big Town is pervaded by an unbearable sense of dread and tension. The reader dreads what’s coming for these characters and their community. And there is the obvious tension of not knowing when the bulldozers will roll, of not knowing what new hurt will come to Early and to the others, but there is also the tension in the characters between wanting to leave but wanting Africville to remain a community. I was particularly struck by the parallel between Toby’s skin “illness” driven by his desire to leave his Blackness behind, and the constantly returning thread of trying to bring Portia White (a fortuitous surname of a real person) back to Africville. In the end Toby never leaves Africville and in real life, Portia White never returned.
I’ll probably have to leave the bookclub visit Early, but I’m certainly grateful that I was introduced to Big Town, a rich, richly ambiguous, and richly allusive novel — is that a reference to Voltaire’s Candide in Early’s prison work?
Stephens Gerard Malone is definitely an author to watch and Big Town is a novel well worth reading.