THE DIVINE RYANS by Wayne Johnston
Kirkus Star


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If Holden Caulfield (or perhaps Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke) had a Canadian Irish-Catholic second cousin, he could easily be Draper Doyle Ryan, the nine-year-old narrator and hero of this deft and sweetly funny 1990 novel by a formidably gifted Toronto author. As in Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (p. 652), the primary setting is Newfoundland's capital city of St. John's, and the tone that of perfecfiy modulated comic satire. Draper Doyle, who lives unhappily with his widowed mother Linda and older sister Mary, among a host of nurturing and disapproving relations, finds partial refuge in his devotion to hockey's Montreal Canadiens, incipient erotic dreams (of a beckoning figure seemingly compounded of his mother and sister, hence dubbed ""Momary""), and, oddly enough, visitations from his father Donald's ghost, which inexplicably carries a hockey puck. More complicated influences are exerted by such ""Divine Ryans"" (so named because so many. of them became clerics) as disciplinarian matriarch Aunt Phil(omena); her brother Father Seymour, the kind of falsely hearty priest everybody loves to hate; and black-sheep bachelor Uncle Reg, a fount of unconventional wisdom whose ironical asides (""A fanatic . . . is a fan who is so crazy you have to keep him in the attic"") are a continuing deadpan delight. The agreeably episodic narrative features several vivid set-pieces, including Draper Doyle's adventure in church with a visiting archbishop, a one-on-one hockey duel with the tomboyish Mary, and a ludicrous introduction to fisticuffs as a reluctant member of ""Father Seymour's Hundred"" (comprised of choirboys and would-be athletes). Simultaneously, the story moves swiftly toward explaining why Donald Ryan died, and how the family will struggle out from under Aunt Phil's controlling thumb. A practically perfect comic novel, filled with superbly observed characters (Aunt Phil's a magnificent one) and enriched by its author's keen understanding of the family unit as both sanctuary and madhouse. Johnston is really, really good.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 086492237X
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday