David Adams Richards is a unique writer in Canada, one who evolved from purely language-driven fiction (1976’s Blood Ties being the best example) to work that has traded linguistic effect for moral depth and for story. These days, his prose is simpler, blunter, and more sparse, but the results are novels with frankly beating, character-driven hearts. Even Richards’ critics (who say his fictional universe is too impoverished, too inarticulate, etc.) would admit that much, though they may complain that Richards’ own heart is always to be found on his sleeve.
All of Richards’ recent books are moral tales of economically challenged heroes who struggle against adversity. The world is bleak, then bleaker, then bleakest, with the occasional minor infusion of hope to resuscitate the enduring dystopia of the Miramichi. This is a formula that begs for reformulation. Sadly, Richards’ The Lost Highway, his 12th novel, is a road to the same old desolate place.
The Lost Highway is the story of Alex Chapman, whose life is contrasted with those of his less refined fellows. Chapman is an intellectual – a word that, for Richards, becomes an epithet: Chapman’s a smart guy with book learnin’ who tries to steal several million dollars and – scoring a bazillion on the obvious scale – has a bad heart. Plus, he’s sterile, party to a murder, and, perhaps worst of all, teaches a course on ethics. This is tub-thumping Richards, where moral tales become moralizing, where base plays for sympathy constitute our engagement with his sorry menagerie of unfortunates.
Or, at least, some of his unfortunates. For Richards still scores some points against academe. What novel of his would be complete without bugbear-blasting passages such as, “It was a mistake all intellectuals make sooner or later: that God would naturally love them, and consider them more worthy than others. Few university degrees have ever expelled that sanctimony.” It’s Richards himself who is sanctimonious: in his novels the uneducated are free, more “natural,” and more blessed than the educated. Richards loves his characters unequally, and it shows in this knocking-over of straw men.
What Richards does best, and should concentrate on doing, is telling the story. And the story? It’s best summed up by a sentence: “If there was a lost highway where souls travelled, this was it.” The Richards universe is somewhat clichéd (that line is just another way of saying “lost souls”), but it’s tried and tested, and though the story is a good story – about the wages of sin and the redemption of human beings – it’s been told before by Richards himself, with greater subtlety.