Given that it takes years between submitting a novel to your agent and the book hitting stands, it’s impressive how right the timing is for the new Ed Riche novel: it pokes fun at the folly of St. John’s city council. Its main character is the mayor of St. John’s.
But that’s all coincidence. “Me starting this book predates the current council’s shenanigans.” He was simply drawn to “how municipal politicians deal with immediate, real problems, like someone’s basement being full of shit.” The mundane minutia of daily life as a municipal politician seemed ripe for the picking.
The chapters in Today I Learned it Was You are short, filler-free, and take turns jumping into the heads of a cast of lively, flawed councillors. It’s no coincidence this punchy novel cruises along, because after writing it, Riche made the conscious decision to peel away over ten thousand words worth of the superfluous, show-off prose associated with CanLit. The result is a pleasure to read, and the forerunner for 2017’s Winterset award winner.
One of the book’s major players is not a city councillor. Harry Davenant lost his job when arts budget cuts shut down the LSPU Hall. But that’s all in his past: we meet Harry as a noncommunicative man mysteriously living without explanation in the woods at Bowring Park
The inspiration for the character came from a real-life local businessman, who, when Ed saw him walking around town, “looked fabulous, fit, bronzed, like he was doing well, ready to get out on a yacht and sail or something,” but it turned out the man was suffering from an organic brain disorder and “he’d sleeping rough, living outdoors, he’d left his home.”
By page 20, supporters of Harry’s “presume to represent his interests,” since he’s noncommunicative, and a Facebook support group has emerged about a person transitioning from man to deer in Bowring Park.
City council is left to decide how to deal with the issue of this man trespassing in a park after 10pm – Is Harry a man or a deer? If they are to acknowledge he is a deer, is it not his right to be there? And what about when winter comes, the exposure? They know it’s not a homeless issue: he’s prepaid his landlord til April. Is it a mental health issue? Or is St. John’s dealing with its first instance of a transspecies man?
It might be easy to presume Ed is playing off the question of what’s next after the transgender movement, the transspecies movement? But in his own words, that’s not the case.
“I don’t give a damn who a person wants to be; they should be as they wish” he says with conviction. “The inspiration of this novel had nothing to do with non-binary identity. Transgender awareness really crept up after I’d started the book, coincidentally.”
What prompted the idea for Ed was when the Qalipu were formally being recognized as a band in Newfoundland. While a lot of people were busy being skeptical of the applicants’ heritage, Ed was busy thinking, “people wanted to be aboriginal people because of their spiritual connection to the earth.”
“And you see the enthusiasm at the Pow Wows down at Conne River, but they don’t wanna be a trampled, colonized, abused person in a shitty reservation with toxic water … they don’t wanna be real aboriginal people. I thought it was interesting that people wanted to change who they are in search of something.”
Harry’s alleged transitioning into a deer is but one of many contentious things on the agenda for city council. For example, the scent sensitive community are demanding green spaces with more non-allergenic plants. Mayor Matt Olford gets the bulk of the book’s chapters. His wife is gone born again, and his mind has gone wandering to a saviour of his own: the sole competent councillor, Alessandra, a woman as elegant as her name.
The city councillors are all well-drawn to represent the different personalities that wind up in politics and how inevitably they’ll clash, given their varied levels of educations and intellect and their opposing values and desires.
All the kinds of councillors that exist are here: the sensible visionaries through to the cluelessly opinionated hicks and fools. The multiple points of view illustrate one thing clearly: the idea that a handful of councillors can ever truly represent a city is absurd.
With some of us wanting to be deers and others hockey players, some valuing parking lots over green spaces, and some of us too allergic to even enjoy green spaces: can we ever make a city for everyone? This is first-rate, biting, gut-busting, topical satire from one of Canada’s funniest fiction writers. That’s right: funny Canadian fiction, it exists and this is a fine example.
The snapshots of these characters’ lives that Riche so richly provides, of broken dreams and dreary daily routines, ask how we’re supposed to govern our own lives, let alone govern a city. Whatever Harry’s thinking as he gallops around Bowring Park, I’m with him: we’re all stuck in a body, job, struggle, modern world, or set of expectations we’d be wild to not occasionally want to run away from. Godspeed my deer friend.