THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS By Wayne Johnston Doubleday 528 pp., $24.95
As Hollywood forgot long ago, romance, terror, and wit are produced by restraint, not excess. What better place to test that rule than Newfoundland, whose ferocious weather inspires a great deal of restraint, indeed. The setting for Wayne Johnston's spectacular new novel, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," sometimes slows love and hate to glacial speed, but that only emphasizes the land's awesome power.
Johnston's epic tells the fictionalized life of Newfoundland's first premier, Joe Smallwood. Born on the eve of the 20th century, Joe lives with his 12 siblings under the erratic terror and pleading of their alcoholic father and Pentecostal mother.
When a rich uncle sends Joe to a snobby private school, the boy finally has reason to think he'll make something of himself. Despite his humble background, he manages to navigate this world of wit and wealth with some success. He even holds his own against the biting repartee of Sheilagh Fielding, a bold, bright young woman whom everyone refers to by her last name.
Graduation and the social status it will afford are only months away when Joe is accused of writing a slanderous letter about the school to a local newspaper. At a crucial moment in the boy's mock trial, Fielding interrupts and confesses, a move that shocks Joe most of all and locks him in a frustrating, life-long attraction to this deadly sarcastic young woman.
Despite her confession, the cruel headmaster continues to hound Joe until he drops out of school. His father, so reluctant for Joe to mingle with the upper-class scholars, now rages day and night about his son's expulsion.
At the center of his father's rantings is an old book of Newfoundland history, a national story he's sure will never include him or his son. Fed up with her husband's obsession, one night Joe's mother grabs the book and throws it outside, a move that starts a avalanche that kills an old man.
In this odd, cold place, Johnston has managed to cultivate a wonderful hybrid of Charles Dickens, John Irving, and Annie Proulx.
From this richly drawn, inauspicious adolescence, Joe and Fielding strike out into the world on separate paths that cross every few years. One old woman tells Joe, "There's not enough of you to bait a hook with," but he's determined to make a name for himself. A succession of jobs as a journalist, unionizer, radio host, and political assistant leads him across Newfoundland as a "wanderlusting patriot."
In one of the book's most haunting episodes, Joe accompanies a seal ship that gets caught in a bad storm. Eighty hunters are left on the ice, lost in the snow. When they're finally found several days later, wind has blown the snow away, leaving a bleached vision of Pompeii: "For several minutes after the ship stopped, no one disembarked. I saw what I had not been able to through my binoculars: that these were not survivors but a strange statuary of the dead."
Later, in a chapter that tests the limits of nature and man, Joe walks across the entire frozen country to meet and unionize all the railway selectmen. After a mixed success, he sets out to organize hundreds of desperate fishermen, until he finally realizes that these poor people don't even have a word for the concept of government.
"There was something about abject hopelessness," he admits, "that inspired a delusionary optimism in me, a belief that for me, if for no one else in Newfoundland, prosperity lay just around the corner."
Though he gives up his health, family, pride, and principles to ensure a place in Newfoundland history, Joe never gives up his ambiguous love for Fielding. Never has there be a more excruciatingly unconsummated relationship. "We were not lovers," Joe confesses to this fascinating, sardonic woman. "What were we?"
While Joe rises up the shaky political ranks of Newfoundland's on-again, off-again government, Fielding survives her chilly father, a bout with tuberculous, and alcoholism to become a leading political satirist. Her "Field Day" column is regularly devoted to ridiculing Joe.
Throughout Joe's narrative of his unlikely rise, the author interrupts with selections from Fielding's hysterically sarcastic "Condensed History of Newfoundland," her brutal newspaper columns, and her emotional diary. The friction between all these voices generates a tremendous degree of light and heat in this icebound story.
Looking back at his unlikely success, Joe says, "Newfoundland stirred in me, as all great things did, a longing to accomplish or create something commensurate with it." Clearly, Johnston has done just that.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society