The Lost Highway, by David Adams Richards

I had a difficult time getting into this book, but I stuck with it because I have liked Richards's books in the past. The opening confused me and required several readings before I could move on. Eventually I realised that the book is written in a point of view that is even closer than close third person.

A quick recap of point of view (POV) may be in order. In first person POV the main character narrates the story: “I opened the refrigerator door, but didn’t see anything I wanted to eat.” Rarely used and difficult to sustain is second person POV: “So you go to the store, and you stand there staring at the ready-to-eat display, slavering over the Fettucini Alfredo and roast beef with gravy.” In third person POV the story is told by an anonymous narrator: “Her doctor had put her on a low-fat diet to bring down her cholesterol.” Third person is the most commonly used POV, and there are several variations. In third person omniscient, the narrator knows what is going on in every character’s mind and provides commentary on the action. In third person limited, the narrator sticks with a single character but still summarizes and provides background information; the narrator can also shift between multiple characters (often done, but difficult to do well). In close third person, the narrator knows only what a particular character knows, sees only what that character sees; while describing events through the character’s consciousness; however, the story is told in the narrator’s voice.

Here, Richards takes close third person a step further. Each section of the book is written as though the featured character himself were writing it, so that we get events filtered through his mindset and described in his voice.

The story opens in rural New Brunswick with Burton Tucker, a brain-damaged man who runs a failing convenience store. We experience life as Burton sees it, so no wonder I found the beginning confusing. Bewildered and forgetful as he is, Burton believes that he has sold a winning lottery ticket worth thirteen million dollars to Jim Chapman, a local man whose construction company has gone bankrupt.

Burton mentions this to Alex Chapman, Jim’s middle-aged great-nephew. Initially planning to be a priest, Alex went off to seminary but became disillusioned. At university, he had some success but left just as he was about to receive tenure and returned home. I was dismayed at first by the tirades about corrupt priests and seminarians, phony (but politically correct) professors and students, and ignorant friends and neighbors. However, I finally realised that these are Alex's views. He thinks everyone else is as ineffectual and dishonest as he himself is. At least I hope that’s true. I’d hate to think that these are Richards’s opinions and voice.

Upon his return he lives with his great-uncle. The two Chapmans are locked in an endless battle, and eventually Jim throws Alex out. Living in a shack, mooning over his high school girlfriend who is married, Alex is sure that she still loves him and that the money from the winning lottery ticket would bring her back to him. One of his high school tormentors who has since become a friend, Leo Bourque, gets wind of Alex’s scheme and demands a share. The two clash over right and wrong, predestination and free will, life and death.

Alex reminds me of Wade Whitehouse in Russell Banks's Affliction. Living in a trailer in rural New Hampshire, working as a well-driller, snowplow operator and part-time town cop, Wade sees his life gradually disintegrate even as he tries to turn it around. He is fighting on all fronts: plowing the relentless snow, worrying about money, battling his ex-wife for more time with his daughter. His great chance comes when he believes he has uncovered a web of corruption in his town. Like Alex, he has great schemes and great dreams and can't understand why nothing works out for him.

However, Wade engaged my sympathy in a way that Alex never did. Perhaps this is the danger inherent in forcing the reader to spend so much time in the head of an unpleasant, egotistical, obtuse character whose life is spiralling out of control. Much as I admired Richards's skill in crafting this unusual point of view, I didn't settle down and enjoy myself until we got to Markus Paul, the First Nations policeman with a rational and logical mind, who is investigating a local murder. On the other hand, the relentless darkness and ruination do serve to highlight the rare good and unselfish act.

There is much to like here. The ever-changing relationship betwen Alex and Leo is very well done, full of surprising insight and unexpected turns. And Richards always excels when exploring the effects of poverty and the unforeseen things it can lead you to do.

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