Richard B. Wright
Richard B. Wright
Midland, Ontario, Canada, 1937
St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, 2017
The mild-unmannered writer
Richard B. Wright is a Canadian writer of ordinariness. Not that his novels are banal or he's a dull writer—they aren't and he isn't.
But he takes as his subjects the lives of ordinary people—middle or lower-class folks trying to do the right thing while seeking some measure of comfort. Their travails are related in an unpretentious, unadorned style, usually from the perspective of a mild-mannered protagonist, and relief usually comes in the end with some palatable social compromise.
This seeking of relief, come to think of it, may be a general Canadian thing. Despite all the talk of CanLit being about victimhood, struggle against hostile nature, an alleged fortress mentality, we can in fact find many more examples of characters trying to work out their difficult modern relationships, finding shelter from their own tumultuous memories and anxieties in their connection with others.
One of the best expressions of such a resolution may be the end of Wright's 2008 novel Adultery, when protagonist Daniel Fielding has lain down with his wronged wife who appears to have at least partially forgiven him:
She had moved behind him. Closing his eyes, Fielding leaned his head against her stomach. It was enough. For now it was enough.
That's all. Throughout the provocatively titled novel, the reader may expect an explosion, a tragedy of some kind, a going through of hell, resulting from Fielding's infidelity and the woman's death he is indirectly responsible for. But the worst that happens is he gets punched by the deceased's brother. The rest of her family, his colleagues and his own betrayed family and friends, while understandably upset, are in the end reasonable about it. Compromises, however uneasy, are found for continued living.
Again, this is not meant to disparage Wright's writing style. It's not to say he fails to construct characters with sufficient angst, or a narrative with properly placed jeopardy and payoff. Rather it's to laud him for writing realistically about life as he see it, rather than give in to artificially heightened drama.
Early in Adultery, after Fielding's partner in their brief fling is murdered, it seems the story might develop into a crime story or psychological thriller. But the facts are quickly sorted out and the case is resolved to make way for the story Wright is interested in—how guilt and betrayal are experienced and dealt with in a certain civilized milieu.
Clara Callan (2001) is sometimes called Richard B. Wright's break-through novel (which finally stopped people confusing him with Richard Wright, the very different and earlier American author of Native Son and Black Boy), though Clara Callan was his ninth novel and was published when he was hitting his senior years. It was very successful internationally, despite being a somewhat claustrophobic account of a woman's life in small-town Ontario, contrasted with her sister's sophisticated experiences in New York—and despite Wright's characteristic pulling of dramatic punches and his subtle style.
At least two other novels, however, may also be called breakthroughs. Wright's first adult novel, The Weekend Man (1970), was a hit with critics. The story of Wes Wakeham, a meek, direction-less, 30-year-old salesman in Toronto to whom nothing much happens also intrigued its readers, then and since, with its finely observed behaviours among the ordinary people of the time.
The followup to The Weekend Man was a bit of a letdown. Fred Landon (another of Wright's blandly named male leads) as the middle-aged, middle-class protagonist of In the Middle of a Life (1973) was perhaps too, uh, middling. Ordinary to the point of dull. Nothing much happens again in this novel but this time nothing else sparks interest either.
Wright's eighth novel, The Age of Longing (1995) was acclaimed and nominated for some of the prizes that Clara Callan would eventually win, though it is an oddly incomplete work, dropping several of the narrative threads and undercutting some of the drama, which we should be used to from Wright by this time. It does stretch Wright's creative powers, however, spanning several generation as one Howard Wheeler tries to fit together his remembered and imagined past.
The Age of Longing also aims to serve as a commentary on our times, as the title hints. In the novel's last chapter, the author sums up life in the twentieth century:
The revolutions, the wars, the death camps, the collapse of our sense of community, the billions now swarming across the planet have made meaningless any account of two individuals' lives.... Yet does there not persist within each of us a need to know and understand who we are and where we come from? And how else but through memory and imagination and language can we recount what might have happened yesterday or what may happen tomorrow?
The teller of small stories, the simple chronicler of the ordinary has his role and performs it well.
In this, Wright's novels remind me of the short, localized stories of Canadian writers like Morley Callaghan and Alice Munro.
But the name that most comes to mind is that of John O'Hara. (There's a comparison you didn't expect.) O'Hara catalogued the personal experiences of the middle class in a certain slice of America around the mid-century without getting into the momentous events shaking the world, as Wright did for a section of later Canadian life.
Both writers eschewed the big literary flourishes, each employing a serviceable style that didn't draw attention to itself but drove the story forward. O'Hara did yield more often to the demand for the shocking dramatic climax, but both authors seemed more invested in their characters finding ways of living with their real or imagined sins.
Perhaps this is not such a distinctly Canadian theme after all.