Lives of Short Duration, Richards’ third novel, is not an easy read, not in story nor in form. Once again Richards places his tale in small-town New Brunswick, this time following the lives of several generations of the Terri family as well as their extended family and friends.
The novel is unrelenting in several ways. The Terries are a family falling apart and nothing feels solid and dependable, not family bonds or social structure. The narration reflects this undependability as the story is told largely through the blurry perspectives and reminisces of characters that are either drunk or suffering from illness and dementia. As a result, the story spills out in a boundless form, slipping from past to present in a timeless stream of consciousness. The dense, unbroken text continues on and on, only divided up by four section headings and the occasional one-line break. As a result, you feel as caught up and stuck as the characters are in their own circumstances, circumstances that are often appalling, painful and unfortunate.
Lives of Short Duration opens with a party that is starting to sour. The Terries are hosting, though the familial ties are difficult to unknot, even for the Terries. George, the father, is drunk and acting up. His daughter, Lois, a mother of three young children, also at the party, yells at him after he threatens to set a bridge, which connects their property to that of a life-long friend, Lester Murphy, on fire, “Goddamn George, you ruin everything,” Lois shouted. “But ya aren’t ruinin my fun, you hear that—you aren’t ruinin my fun.” Later, you discover that her words are an echo of her mother’s, who moved away from the area after leaving George. Finding fun, at the expense of others and often to their own detriment, is a reoccurring justification for their decisions.
Once the span is on fire, the RMCP arrive to inform George that the body of his father, who had been missing for a year, has been found in the woods, and that Lester Murphy has been struck by a car and died. From this party, the story spins out along the timeline, past and future, of the Terries’ lives and of the region. Midway through the novel, the perspective changes and story restarts from the hours of the opening pages as seen by the doomed Lester Murphy.
The characters that populate this novel are not easy to care for or even like. They are self-absorbed, destructive, violent, cruel, grasping people. While you begin to understand their actions, it is difficult to really sympathize, not that they would want you to, either. The struggle of their lives overwhelms the small breaks of happiness, and they constantly return to a place of frustration, “To wake in the night in the midst of a shuddering hangover when the dismal past threatens you, when faces form in slow motion before you, so every particle of their flesh breathes misery…”. The misery is pushed down and swallowed up by drinking, drugs, and casual sex. These activities cover the growing distance between the characters, between people and their history, and between individuals and themselves.
The only character who elicits any sense of hope is Packet Terri, the eldest child of George and his ex-wife, Elizabeth. The other members of the Terri family seem to yearn for him (though they also resent him for their longing). At the party, George, after burning the bridge and his hands in the process, expresses anger at Packet’s choice to skip the party, and, once the RCMP arrive, Packet’s absence is even more noted, “There was a terrible thing happening. Everyone was saying that they needed Packet there.” Packet is set apart from the other characters both physically and emotionally. He leaves the area to work in the North, earning a decent living, though not escaping the violence of his home, and he moves around, even across the country to Victoria , BC .
He manages to break away from the destructive cycle in which his family is stuck, but he also returns to them. He sees in his family the good that the police, outsiders, and even the reader, would overlook in the face of all their struggles and destructive behaviour. Packet’s understanding and acceptance of his family is seen with his brother Little Simon, who is named after their grandfather, “And he was gone through the dry field in an October afternoon, with his hands in his pockets, his cap over his ears—and Packet would love him entirely, and be sad.” Little Simon is a drug addict and dealer. He is violent and often cruel, though he excuses it as a little fun teasing, and despite his illegal activities manages to elude the police for a long time. Both old Simon and Little Simon die as they lived – Old Simon in the woods where he lived for 60 years, Little Simon in a game of Russian roulette, a bit of fun played too seriously. Between them is Packet, the one who survives.
Reading Lives of Short Duration is a challenge, and I wish I had known what I was getting into before I started reading it. The experiences of the Terries are almost buried in the form, and I feel like I missed a lot by wanting to impose an order and untangle the messiness of their lives. I missed the good in the Terries and, therefore, I believe, one point that Richards is trying to make.
On a side note, this past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending of reading of Richards’ newest novel, Crimes Against My Brother. The short passage that Richards shared held all the traits that I love about his writing: controlled pacing, anticipation, the quiet sorrows and joys that life holds. His reading style was matter of fact; there was no need to add emphasis to the meaning built by his words. Afterwards, I stood in line, full of excitement and terror, to get his signature. I even managed to express some sort of appreciation for his work, though I was comically tongue-tied in front of such a great wordsmith.
All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Lives of Short Duration. 1981. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.