“The Artificial Newfoundlander” by Larry Mathews

Posted: July 7, 2010 in Dark Art Cafe

Okay. In medias res. From this tongue-in-cheek first line onward, Larry Mathews had me hooked. Sure, there were times when I thought the protagonist, Hugh Norman, a middle-aged English prof, was a bit of a pontificating wind-bag. But then I followed him downtown St. John’s to the Ship pub where he met up with his one-time student, some-time drinking buddy, and soon-to-be-ex-son-in-law Foley, who is the real pontificating twit of the story.

We first encounter Foley a few pages after Hugh has sussed out for us that his daughter Emily had abandoned Foley in Vancouver in order to move back to St. John’s and Foley has followed her to Newfoundland. But before looking up his estranged wife, Foley decides on a pint with Hugh (“me buddy!”) first. Hence the meeting at the Ship where Hugh and Foley are trying to figure out what’s wrong with Emily. Foley’s take on Emily leaving him has to do, as far as he is concerned, with his interpretation of the events of 9/11.

“Well. My first reaction was a sort of perverse satisfaction. Good for the hijackers, I thought. Of course later I reconsidered. It wasn’t the CEOs who died in the Towers, it was mostly the peons, like us.” […] He pauses, to make sure I’m okay with traveling with him in peonage class. Apparently the deaths of three thousand CEOs would have been regarded with total equanimity. My son-in-law, the moral cretin. (30)

Foley is a moral cretin but in Mathews’ novel he, like Hugh, is more than a mere comic send-up. Through the course of Hugh’s summer adventures researching an obscure novelist-priest (Phonse Cleary), figuring out his daughter and her ex, and rekindling an old romance with a feminist poet, we get to know a guy who, though pompous, is not merely a caricature but a deeply involving, hilariously conflicted character.

Hugh sometimes pissed me off with his often scathing mental judgements; he continually made me laugh at his inept efforts to be a grandfather; and he completely won me over to an abiding interest in the elusive ex-pat Newfoundland novelist-priest, Phonse Cleary (who, unfortunately, exists only as a figment of Mathews’ imagination).

This novel reads as a satire, yes, brilliantly sending up the pomp and pretensions of academia. But, as Mark Anthony Jarman highlights, it is more than that. This novel is “barbed and satirical and yet lovingly lyrical.” As a satiric St. John’s novel it is more comic, in my estimation, than Ed Riche’s The Nine Planets and more humanly engaging than Paul Bowdring’s The Night Season. It also explores a niche in Newfoundland literature not often seriously considered, that of the CFA (or Come From Away) perspective on this place. 

The Artificial Newfoundlander is a genuinely funny, thoroughly engaging story told with wit, lyricism, and a raucous narrative drive.

For more on Larry Mathews’ The Artificial Newfoundlander, check out the radio interview with him below, originally aired on CHMR in St. John’s on the weekly arts broadcast “Author’s Hour,” hosted by Mike Minor.

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