Sweetland

sweetland

      This note discusses Michael Crummey’s Sweetland (2014), a tough, beautifully written novel which offers a grim view of a settler community, left behind on the island by the history which brought it into existence in an earlier period of migration and settlement. In this context, the castaway story is told as one of stubborn resistance to change, and eventually of madness and death. The main character Moses Sweetland returns to the island after everyone else has left, to live and die in secrecy.

      The community is on Sweetland Island, off Newfoundland, and it is now decaying and old. The Canadian government offers them a good sum to leave; but everyone must agree. Moses Sweetland is the last holdout. For the first two thirds, or so, of the novel, we get a picture of his stubborn, inarticulate, resistance, with many memories of and flashbacks to his earlier life, and pictures of his tough relations to the rest of the community. All this comes gradually, and in the context of his daily routine – walks about the island (bleak, thickly wooded, subject to fierce weather), and constant work (salting the fish he has caught, stacking the wood he has scrounged). It’s a traditional community, that is, a traditional community of Newfoundland as a settlement colony. It is in plenty of contact with modernity but not really part of it – Sweetland least of all. The sponsored removal of the community from the island is the sign that it doesn’t fit, that it has no reason for existing any more, even though it can exist, all the basic routines of making do, eating and sleeping and meeting and filling the days, can still be followed, as Sweetland in effect sets out to prove – or at first he simply goes through these routines, as he always has, and then sets out to prove that they still work, that they are more real than anything else. The general historical context of this is capitalism as creative destruction, with the accent here on destruction (‘It was the world’s job, it seemed, to render every made thing obsolete’; 92). More specifically the focus is on colonialism – settler society – as a more extreme form of this creative destruction — lands and industries and fisheries settled, possessed, exploited, then used up and abandoned, which is why the US and Canada and Australia have so many abandoned or moribund communities, lonely abandoned shacks, and so on – not that Europe is (especially now) any different, but that the whole cycle happened so much more quickly in the settler societies. And Newfoundland was always poorer, precarious economically, doing it tough (see the stories of Alistair Macleod, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, 1976). The young men of Sweetland Island have always (in Sweetland’s time anyway) gone to the mainland, to Newfoundland or Toronto, to find work. Now the fishery is virtually finished.

      It is ironical, and also poignant, that the novel begins with Sweetland’s rescue of a boatload of Sri Lankan illegal immigrants, adrift and utterly helpless till he happens to encounter them.

He slipped the engine into reverse to avoid running broadside into

the open boat. Figures standing along the length, waving

frantically. A dozen or more it looked to be and no one local. Dark

skin and black heads of hair. Some foreign trawler gone down on the

Banks, he thought, a container ship on its way to the States. All of

them in street clothes and not a one wearing a life jacket. […]

Those faces staring at him with looks of deranged relief. (4)

      These are the desperate tail-end of the generations of hopeful settlers, the process that is coming to a miserable and lowkey end in the evacuation of the island, and Sweetland himself is a hero for rescuing them, though it turns out that the rescue is the occasion for one of several depressing discoveries that Sweetland and the reader make about relations among people in his community. No one on the island can really see this context and the novel doesn’t really spell it out. And Sweetland is one who both refuses to and cannot articulate either this or his more particular and personal reasons for resisting1 and, after even he has agreed to leave, his reasons for sneaking back and continuing to live on the island, as a kind of voluntary castaway. It is this grim episode that fits this novel into the argument of Castaway Tales, especially what is traced in Part 2: the violence and disillusionment of many modern castaway tales, in particular those in which the island is repatriated, as in J. G. Ballard’s Concrete Island and Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory.

Sweetland expresses himself only by doing, by walking the island and working:

He had longers in various stages of drying around the property, all

waiting for the chainsaw. He was soon going to have to find

somewhere else to pack it away. The back porch was full, one side of

the shed stacked floor to ceiling with junks in rows, and more along

the lee side wall. The twine shed and the old outhouse long ago

converted to hold firewood. He’d stolen a section of metal culvert

left over from road construction on the Burin, towed it across on

Hawyood Coffin’s punt. Packed it front to back, forty or fifty cords

of wood, he figured. People said he would never live long enough to

burn it all and he couldn’t stay out of the woods after more. It was

like having money in the bank. (41)

      He is stubborn, he resists pressure from the government and from his own community and goes his own way, he works and works, but obsessively. His accumulation here is as pointless as is that of any overworked overpaid executive. It is as if the novel is always seeming to ground him in practical work and a solitary life in nature, as can happen with a castaway – only for an underlying ungroundedness to unmoor him.

      He is not the kind of castaway who would previously have lived in some other way (call it more civilized, more urbanised), as a merchant for instance, and now has to knuckle down to surviving, improvising, working with hands and simple tools. Acting in this way was always his life, his way of being in the world – almost to the exclusion of relations with others, as we see in the course of the novel – and his activity as a lonely castaway in the last part of the novel only pushes this to extremity, and to a kind of point of recoil or unravelling, as we will see later. The rescue of the Sri Lankans happened some years before the events of the main strand of the novel: the evacuation of the island, Sweetland’s resistance to it and his attempt to evade it by marooning himself back on the island. We learn of a series of other earlier events; his time as a castaway is not secluded, but is infiltrated by these fragments of memory. The learning of them isn’t easy either for Sweetland or ourselves. In the course of the islanders’ care for the Sri Lankans, Sweetland discovers how Ruthie (his sister), whom he married off to the blind Pilgrim, was having an affair with the island’s parson, who otherwise seems a good man. And he realises that his organizing of this marriage – forcing Ruthie into it, in effect – was a mistake. We hear his narration of the death by drowning of his 18-year-old brother Hollis – they were out fishing, Hollis became entangled in the trawl, and Sweetland cut the line when he should have tried to haul him in. The trawl and its load dragged Hollis down to the bottom. Later we realise that Hollis probably committed suicide and that Sweetland told this tale, centred on his mistake, and took the blame so as to protect his family from the truth. The hint comes in another story, like that of the death of Hollis also told to Sweetland’s nephew Jesse, involving the drowning of one of a herd of buffaloes being transported to the neighbouring, deserted, island of Little Sweetland. It’s typical of Sweetland that his good deed, or attempt to act well, comes in this indirect form of a lie, and typical of the novel that the hint, or image, that suggests the source of his lie comes in the form of an extraordinary anecdote – and one involving waste and a kind of shortness of view: the herd of buffaloes are laboriously transported to the deserted island, Sweetland and others of his community find themselves employed for the hard labour of getting them there (36-9), then they are left there, and eventually seem to be forgotten and die out. (Before this has happened they do reappear, in another extraordinary anecdote, in which Sweetland and his friend Duke visit Little Sweetland in order to kill – poach – these deserted buffaloes, can’t find any in the fog and scrub, then Sweetland shoots one which is actually inside a deserted cottage (139-40).) Sweetland really is close to nature, in his work and walking, and even closer in his solitary life as a voluntary castaway after the rest of the community has left, with no companion but a stray dog, to which he delivers many of his best laconic one-liners. But perhaps he is too close to nature, absorbed in it: the bison marooned on the small island and left to die out are too much like Sweetland himself in his castaway existence and eventual death.

      This is an element in this novel which we don’t encounter in many castaway novels – a Faulknerian element (Crummey’s prose also resembles Faulkner’s), almost grotesque. In most castaway novels the castaway’s activities produce or reproduce something elemental and basic, whether this be a matter of producing one’s material life through work (cultivation of wheat, domestication of goats, division of the land into plots and enclosures and so on), or a matter of manifesting some elemental violence and aggression. In Sweetland one can certainly talk of the elemental and basic in all the work and effort Sweetland puts into making do (chopping and stockpiling wood, salting fish, repairing and cleaning), the often wonderfully concise and poetic notation of the state of the weather and the sea, and so on, but the strand of the grotesque, as in the episode of the bison, puts all this at a tangent. The accidents that punctuate the story have a similar effect: Sweetland and those around him are never settled or secure, always at risk of death or mutilation: there are the death or suicide of Hollis, the death or suicide of Jesse, and the industrial accident to Sweetland’s face and groin at the steel works in Toronto. And we might add the death of Smut, the little dog that is Sweetland’s companion in the castaway phase of his life, torn to pieces by some unknown creature and his mutilated body found by Sweetland, as was Jesse’s body, drowned and then bashed on the rocks. All these events have a strong bodiliness about them, as we would expect in this novel of physical work and effort, but also something withheld – we aren’t present at the accident, if it was an accident (Jesse, Smut), only at the search for the body and the finding of the cruelly torn or bashed corpse; the narration is unreliable (in the case of Hollis); we hear only long after the event, and after many allusions in the text (in the case of Sweetland’s accident in the steel mill – and how much this explains his failure to get married, indeed his still being a virgin, is left uncertain just because of where it comes in the sequence of the narrative). Perhaps the graphic passages detailing the deaths and butcherings of animals substitute for the deaths of those close to Sweetland, which we hear of in the aftermath and unreliably.

      The episode of Loveless’s cow (77-89) is typical of the more memorable and extreme of these episodes of hard physical work and struggle. Loveless is a hopeless, ineffectual person and shouldn’t be responsible for a cow; the animal tries to give birth, its calf gets stuck and dies, and Sweetland spends hours extracting the corpse, having to get his arm and a cable inside the cow, and then saw off the leg which is round the wrong way. Then the whole community, all of them old as Sweetland notices, struggle to get the cow onto its feet, eventually devising a kind of sling to hold it upright. The cow survives, but the whole episode hardly suggests productive work. Another, equally grisly example is on pp.225-32 – when Sweetland recovers a magnificent fish he has caught he finds a mutilated rabbit’s head stuffed inside: another one of a series of warnings, coming from some unknown source, telling him he should get off the island. The rest of the passage details his cleaning the fish and then cleaning up, and is punctuated by his memory of the death of his mother (she dies not recognising him). Typically, he discovers much later, after everyone has left the island and he has sneaked back to live there, that these malign warnings probably came from Duke, his best friend; typically, neither he nor we can be completely sure of that, but the probable information adds to the sense of the secrets and deceits permeating the community of the island.

      It may be that this element of the grotesque and withheld has relation to the way the people of Sweetland are peripheral, without a place in the modern world. Their day-to-day struggle and hardship cannot any longer represent a kind of basic reality – the kind of gritty necessity that modern, cosseted, urban people have lost touch with – because it is also the sign that there is no place for them in the modern world. If there was a place for them they wouldn’t need to light the wood fire and salt the fish and row the boat and so on. (There are plenty of modern things, bits of machinery and radios and laptops and so on, in their daily lives, though less and less in Sweetland’s life after he becomes a castaway, but these tends to measure their distance from modernity: ‘A window they could peer through to watch the modern world unfold in its myriad variations, while only the smallest, strangest fragments washed ashore on the island’ (89). )2

      Similarly, we can put Sweetland at the tail end of the history of castaway fiction because he is returning to his island, hiding on it, after it has in effect failed as a place of settlement and been abandoned. This doesn’t mean that his planning and work and sheer dogged effort are not impressive, heroic in a way (there is much more detailed recounting of sheer difficulty here than in most castaway novels; Golding’s Pincher Martin is one exception). But it’s the heroism of defeat; and of course of the struggle with mortality. If Sweetland doesn’t die by one of the accidents that lie in wait for the characters in the novel, he will die of old age and the stress of effort and hardship He is in his seventies. He’s not making a new life but remaking an old one. Further, the uncanny or disturbing phenomena begin to suggest that he may be dead already; he finds his own grave marker in the community’s graveyard (203).

      And the novel is haunted. This is not unknown in castaway novels and stories (see for instance Ballard’s ‘The Terminal Beach’, or Garland’s The Beach) but it is ever present in Sweetland. Even the Sri Lankans rescued at the beginning of the novel seem ghostly; by the end, there are crowds of ghosts (literally – processions of the unspeaking dead), hallucinations of presences and of corpses in the sea, weird out-of-kilter phenomena. Many of these involve the return of the past – the mysterious light at the window of one of the houses in the now deserted village becomes the presence of the naked girl that Sweetland had watched many years ago (part of a pattern of sexual encounters with women that all went nowhere in Sweetland’s life); the seal that Sweetland shoots in the harbour becomes the corpse of the already dead and buried Jesse when he tries to hook it into his boat, a horrifying moment. It is as if the series of memories and flashbacks that are stranded into the central part of the novel, almost all of them involving losses, failures and lost potential, become manifest in these hauntings. Meanwhile the radio continually broadcasts reports of mild weather that bear no relation to the wild storms that are battering Sweetland Island:

There was a storm in February that lasted two full days, a fierce

gale of wind and snow drifting halfway up the kitchen windows. The

radio announcer calmly calling for scattered flurries and moderate

easterly winds and a low of minus one. […]

It had been comic at first, to see the forecast so far off the mark

day after day. But there was something increasingly disturbing in

the disconnect. It seemed a sign of a widening fracture in the

world. (269)

The period in which the castaway makes do on his island, solving or at any rate confronting material problems, or exploiting material opportunities, ought to keep the irrational at a distance and make a present that is controlling the future. That’s truer, no doubt, of the more buoyant castaway stories that stick closer to, or return to, Robinson Crusoe, than it is of the more violent and sceptical later castaway stories; but it’s emphatically not true of Sweetland In Sweetland the uncanny and out-of -kilter manifests itself with touches of horror and touches of the poignant in the last phase of the novel when Sweetland has made himself a castaway. This is the more telling because from start to finish the novel is so detailed and unsparing on hard physical work and struggle.

1‘He could admit to hardly knowing why he felt a particular way about anything. The stronger the feeling, the less able he was to break it down into identifiable categories, into cause and effect. But he wasn’t accustomed to being called out for the lack and it served only to make him increasingly close-mouthed and obstinate.’ (49)

2– See also the passage about the landing on the moon and Queenie getting a flush toilet, p.31.

 

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