[Review of The Coming of Winter, by David Adams Richards. Canadian Forum 14:646 (November/December 1974), 23]
The percentage of drunk drivers on the road on a Friday night in New Brunswick is higher than in any other province in Canada. On the Sunday evening TV news -- especially in the winter and spring, when there aren't many tourists -- often every one of the traffic deaths reported, in the absence of any other news, will be a single-car accident on Friday or Saturday night. If you want to understand why this is so -- if you want real reasons, not the ones given by the clergy or the editorial writers -- there is a new novel you will probably want to read. In The Coming of Winter you can live through -- at least part of the sort of life that would make you feel that nothing was more important than going out and getting hammered on cheap wine and beer and driving through town shouting at the passing citizenry.
One of the weaknesses of the novel as a form has been that novelists traditionally tend to be intellectuals, members of at least an educational, if not economic, upper class. There haven't been many novelists who succeeded in writing about work at all, or at understanding people for whom menial or factory-style work is the definition of existence. Most of the writers who have attempted it either never get down to the details of the work, or condescend to their subjects, or both. This book, in contrast, not only presents a vivid and convincing picture of how it is to work in a pulp mill, but also -- and more thoroughly -- creates a vision of the psychic damage done to human beings by such jobs and by the society that requires them.
It is, then, at least in part, a book about New Brunswick and its problems. But Richards mentions few place names, and it seems likely that readers acquainted with rural Ontario or Nova Scotia or Manitoba will recognize many of these characters and many of their problems. It is not only in New Brunswick that the fabric of rural society is deteriorating, that jobs are becoming more meaningless, that wherever you go you find evidence that things were once more settled, more civilized than they are now. It's not only New Brunswick's woods that are full of rotting fences, fields gone back to forest, cellar holes "closing," as Robert Frost said, "like a dent in dough."
The Coming of Winter is concerned with a young man's coming of age in such a world. Kevin Dulse, who turns 21 and gets married in the course of the single late fall in which the action of the book occurs, lives with his friends a life of noisy desperation implicitly connected with the disintegration of the society around him. His father can no longer fish because of illness and because the pulp mill in which Kevin works has eliminated most of the fish. Kevin hunts devotedly, but there is little or no game left and the hunting is almost as much a love of violence as it is a love of the woods and the chase. The book does not talk directly about this -- and, for a wonder, neither do the characters -- but the reader comes to understand how it would be to confront a future that holds no genuine hope of improvement or growth at all, only fantasies of "going away," of escape from the mill and from the decay into a completely unimagined alternative (which, we know and the characters do not, is alienation in an urban slum à la Going Down the Road). In such a society the coming of age is the coming of winter. No harvest is possible, only prolongation of adolescence or settling into dreary, responsible, late adulthood. The agony of such a position is formed and held and even cherished by this book: no mean achievement.
In spite of all this, there is a lot wrong with The Coming of Winter. Much of what's wrong could have been corrected by tough and imaginative editing -- syntax is often inadequate, grammar is distractingly incorrect, there are repetitive adjectives ("clean" and "healthy" are out there struggling long after the whistle ought to have blown). Dialogue is sometimes wooden (Richards is at his best with inarticulate people: the scenes involving Kevin's father and the neighbour whose cow Kevin shoots become almost physically painful). These matters may sound academic, but they do weaken what should have been a much stronger book.
On balance, then, The Coming of Winter is a novel which overcomes some pretty serious handicaps by having as its subject matter something fruitful and important (perhaps especially important in the 1970's, when we are all waking from a dream of progress to a nightmare in which almost everything seems to be getting inexorably worse.) One is reluctant to use a cliché like "promising" in reviewing a first novel, but if David Adams Richards can find a ruthless and loving editor, he is likely to prove a major talent.