GAFF TOPSAILS by Patrick Kavanagh


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A wealth of fascinating material and its author's lyrical prose style are the saving graces of this ponderous, overheated first novel from and about Newfoundland. Its actions occur during a single day: June 24, 1948, when local fishermen celebrate the Feast of St. John the Baptist; its characters--all to differing degrees solitaries and seekers--include a Dostoevskyan mute, Michael Barron, starved for love and consumed by a vision of ""the perfect darkness that waits, just for him""; Michael's younger brother Kevin, a sin- and God-haunted altar boy; Father MacMurrough, a restless priest troubled by memories of earthly love; a nubile girl who follows the practices of local superstition in hopes of securing a husband; a fisherman's wife who indulges in a Molly Bloom--like reverie while awaiting her husband's return; the local lighthouse keeper (""Johnny the Light""), once a hero who rescued an entire ship's crew, now the drunken laughingstock of the community--and on and on thus, in a fragmented narrative that dances among the characters' varied consciousness as the day's round of working and dreaming moves toward a climactic ritual on the beach coinciding with the clarifications of the people's separate ""visions."" Beneath the twin shadows of inland mountains (named ""Gaff Topsails"") and a huge iceberg that drifts offshore nearby, these individual destinies play themselves out--in a manner all too reminiscent of, and probably derived from, Patrick White's relentlessly symphonic Riders in the Chariot. There are wonderful things here: the long interpolated tale (albeit indebted to Robinson Crusoe) of the Irish castaway who was the area's first settler; superb descriptions of wind, weather, and landscape; and lively dialogue rife with rib-tickling obscenities. Overall, however, this is a novel that strains too hard to impress, and sinks beneath its own weight of allusions and symbols.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Viking