Reeling on the Rock

RARE BIRDS, Edward Riche; $19.95 paper 0-385-25635-3, 288 pp., 51/2 x 81/4, Doubleday, Sept. Reviewed from uncorrected proofs

Dave Purcell’s entrepreneurial response to being restructured out of fisheries is a brilliant little bistro in Push Cove on the outskirts of St. John’s. Though he hoped to attract the city’s emerald set, and prospering consultant types with kids in Mandarin/French-immersion kindergarten, by March the restaurant is mired in snow to the sills, heading the way of its namesake, the auk. Dave’s clever wife has decamped to Washington, only a voice on the answering machine, a face on the evening news. If it weren’t for the neighbours, Dave would be sunk. As it is, he’s a mess.

What looks to be shaping up as a dire outpost version of The Ginger Man springs to life as Alphonse Murphy rides up on his snowblower. What the aunt was to The Shipping News, Phonse is to Rare Birds. He’s a Newfoundland archetype: resourceful, generous, crafty, possibly crazy. Working in deep secrecy on his own Plan B, he spares some thought, over confit de canard and a superb 1978 Haut Brion, to hatching one for Dave. His scheme brings birders flocking in pursuit of the elusive Tasker’s Sulphureous. Soon Push Cove and Dave’s restaurant are packed with birders – and other less benign types. Are they the dreaded Winnebagos, industrial spies after the prototype of Phonse’s recreational submarine vehicle? Figments of the paranoia of an endangered culture? The Auk’s giddily escalating fortunes and the rising heat between Phonse’s multi-talented sister-in-law and Dave fan the plot to a flammable climax. Surely Phonse had a Plan C?

Riche, a St. John’s native, is a writer for the weekly CBC radio program The Great Eastern. Rare Birds, his first novel, is a shrewd piece of post-industrial, post-colonial comedy. Its prose is sensual and sardonic, its imagery hilarious and haunting. It is hard to forget the hunter-gatherers along the Upper Road, for example, dismembering wrecks in their front yards; or the odd totems – lonely phone booths, empty soccer fields – that mark the landscape, “signs that someone had once imagined that something would be happening somewhere, and now no one could recall why.” Rare Birds is a great example of why Newfoundland writing increasingly fascinates readers in the rest of the country. The novel’s also very funny. – by Maureen Garvie, a Kingston writer and editor.