The Coming of Winter hits two of my interest points as this is David Adams Richards’ debut novel.
Richards’ work first came to my attention with Mercy Among the Children, published in 2000 and co-winner of the Giller Prize for that year (the prize was shared with Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost). With 14 novels to his name, as well as plays, short stories and works of non-fiction, Richards has garnered more accolades with each offering. His writing is, for me, a stellar example of the best fiction writing has to offer, which is why, on a monthly basis, re: read pages will be working through each of his novels in chronological order.
The Coming of Winter was published in 1974, when Richards was only 23 years old. His age in itself blows my mind, especially when I started reading it (this was the first time I’ve read it) and could see all the hallmarks of the skill I admire in his later fiction. But that’s getting ahead of things.
Set around a small town in New Brunswick, the novel is a coming of age story and covers two weeks in the life of Kevin Dulse including his twenty-first birthday and ending with his wedding. The story is told from multiple perspectives, including Kevin’s, his parents’ and his friends’, and moves back and forth in time to fill in the experiences and motivations of the characters.
Richards makes so many interesting choices and he phrases scenes so well it is difficult to select just a few to go over, so I’m going to pick one big decision and a peppering of phrases that really stood out for me as a way of narrowing things down.
The big editorial choice is Richards’ use of the pronouns he or she rather than names as scenes shift, obscuring which character is driving the story. Sometimes you have to read several pages before it becomes clear. This lack of clarity corresponds to Kevin’s struggle to define what it means to be an adult as he (and the reader) views the potential examples in his community.
Richards frames the story using this structure to show Kevin’s development. The book begins with an unidentified “he” hunting in the woods. It is only after he accidentally shoots a cow that the protagonist is named and his age narrowed down. A “man” comes toward the dead cow to speak to the hunter:
“Good afternoon,” he said in a very calm voice and with a heavy river accent, a very calm, almost kind voice. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Kevin Dulse.” The boy spoke softly, also trying to be sure of himself, trying not to fall under the man’s gaze – or be intimidated by it, frightened by it.
Kevin isn’t named, in the addition I read, for six pages, and then he is a boy – a boy who is trying to find equal footing with the man whose cow he has just shot. In the passage, Richards emphasizes not only Kevin’s desire to run but his decision to stay, “And he was very afraid now, felt the heaviness of his body, and could not shoulder his rifle again, wished to run but knew he couldn’t. Couldn’t stand the sick whine of the animal.” Despite his fear, for himself and the animal, he stays to see the event through. He kills the cow with a second shot and then, noticing the man, stays to speak with the owner. With this scene, Richards presents Kevin as poised for adulthood, still a boy but aware of his growing responsibility for his actions.
The novel closes with Kevin’s wedding and another encounter with an animal, this time a pig. Kevin, his family and his new wife’s family and maid of honour attend a small reception at a local restaurant. Kevin’s friends, including his best man, do not come but, instead, are yelling and acting out just outside. Throughout the scene his friends are not named; Richards demotes them to “they.” Kevin doesn’t want them to come in anymore and even worries about the contents of an envelope they send in containing a gift. He recognizes the difference between their behaviour and that which is expected as an adult.
When the party exits the reception, they discover that his friends have taken the wheels off the family car and trapped a young pig inside. After taking the scene in, Kevin is only thinking of one thing, “‘Christ,’ he said. Because they hadn’t stayed.” Kevin’s disappointment that they didn’t stay to help fix the mess they made parallels his own decision at the beginning of the book to face the man whose cow he shot. Kevin was ready to take that step to adulthood, while his friends still do not take responsibility for their actions.
Richards choice to use pronouns to indicate the development, or lack thereof, of the characters and to obscure which character is driving the story subtly reinforces the struggle to define and reach adulthood. I could write so much more about the themes and characters of this book but then this blog post would turn into an essay, so, instead, I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from this great debut.
Richards builds so much of his characters in just single sentences. I’ve put two of my favourite ones below:
He still smelled of the liquor, he thought – still smelled of the cheap warm wine of the night before and they, both of them smelled of soap.
He forgot about the rifle now – the hunting, but thought only of where he was and that he should be elsewhere, with his friends perhaps, perhaps drinking with John.
And the line that made me drop my book:
The rain now, like the rain that night with Joseph Paul and the engine dead and he working with the carburetor float and Joseph Paul keeping the drift line away so it wouldn’t tangle, cursing at the black swells and Kevin sitting in the corner on a crate of fish stink shivering for he was just very young and not saying a word.
This seemingly throwaway mention of Joseph Paul (he is only referred to once more in this book and in a similar fashion) blew my mind because the Paul family will feature in Richards’ Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul, published 37 years later. Boom.
Even if I hadn’t already known Richards’ writing, The Coming of Winter has more than enough going for it to get me interested in more work by this author. It is a strong debut for an author of any age and provides a taste of the quality of work Richards would later produce. I hope this post will pique your interest in this great Canadian author. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Next week Monday, I’ll be discussing Robertson Davies’ The Fifth Business – the book that started it all for me. But, first, come back this Wednesday as re: read pages will discuss the fears and motivations of being a writer.
All quoted passages are from Richards, David Adams. The Coming of Winter. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1992.