When you’ve had a thirty-year career as a St. John’s English and Creative Writing professor, and mentored some of the best creative writers to come out of the province, it has to be hard to come up with a story that isn’t somehow derivative. Larry Mathews’s newest novel, An Exile’s Perfect Letter, suggests one way to do it: satirize a fiction not unlike your own life.
An Exile’s Perfect Letter further explores characters and themes previously introduced in Mathews’s 2010 novel The Artificial Newfoundlander. Hugh Norman is preparing to retire from a long career as an English professor, when he learns of the sudden death of his childhood friend.
As he’s composing a letter for the memorial service, during a lunchtime walk around Long Pond, he finds a corpse in the woods behind The Fluvarium. We become privy to Hugh’s attempt to come to grips with what’s happened, which involves ruminating on the artificiality of identity, the difficulty of communicating in relationships, and the compulsion to make meaning out of the mundane.
With thinly-veiled references to real-life characters around town, An Exile’s Perfect Letter hints that what is new and “alt” is often as flawed as the imperfect systems that create the conditions for it. When one of Hugh’s old colleagues arrives in St. John’s hoping to write the next viral article about the local arts scene, Hugh recommends interviewing young hotshot author Zachary Philip Dwyer about his novel Up to Me Arse in Muck. Despite being marketed on the mainland as a book that rebels against Newfoundland stereotypes, Hugh suggests that Up to Me Arse in Muck actually reinforces them. Dwyer is basically Holden Caulfield, but from the bay.
Mathews blunts this cynicism with the right amount of self-awareness, refusing to hide the fact that he and Hugh are more than a little bit alike. The author bio on the book’s last page indicates that Mathews began teaching English at Memorial in 1984 – the same year Hugh Norman moved to St. John’s to teach English at the university. As Hugh worries about the significance of his career, and whether the coincidences and meanings he assigns to events in his life might “tell [him] that [he’s] wasted [it],” his self-deprecation and self-doubt become Mathews’s. As a result, the book’s self-reflexivity becomes as sincere as it is cheeky.
Describing a book he’s reading, Hugh claims that its author, always quick with a one-liner, conveys “his passion for good writing, his sense of its importance. He refuses to jump on bandwagons.” The same thing could besaid about Larry Mathews and An Exile’s Perfect Letter.