A novel by Edward Riche, published in 1997 by Doubleday Canada Limited. 259 pages.
Dave Purcell has a problem. His restaurant, The Great Auk, which lies on the outskirts of St. John's, Newfoundland, is failing. His marriage is failing. His waistline is failing; in fact, the only thing that's functioning properly for Dave is his mid-life crisis. Dave's best friend and closest neighbour, Phonse Murphy, feels bad for Dave and hatches a scheme involving a supposedly extinct duck and a whole lot of publicity in order to drum up business at the soon to be ex-restaurant. Of course, being a dyed-in-the-wool Newfoundland bayman, this isn't the only scheme that Phonse has on the go. He's also in possession of some top secret state-of-the-art lamps which are being sought after by CSIS. Furthermore, he's developed a personal recreational submarine vehicle (which he's dubbed the R.S.V.), and he's convinced the Winnebago corporation is trying to steal the plans for it. To top it all off, he's sitting on about twenty 26-pound bags of cocaine that he fished out of the Atlantic Ocean about two years before he met Dave. While he's trying to help Dave save the Auk from extinction, Dave has also been drafted into service as a middle-man for selling the coke, as well as the first mate on the R.S.V.'s maiden voyage. Just to make everything that much more interesting, the separated, yet not divorced, Dave has fallen in love with Phonse's sister-in-law, Alice (not to mention Phonse's yayo!).
This book is - how shall I put it? - a complete scream. From the first page to last, I was wrapped up in the love/hate relationship that Dave has with Newfoundland - mainly because I know the feeling. My favourite passage from the book highlights the sensation quite well:
Tourism. It was the last hope for Newfoundland, to become some kind of vast park, its people zoo pieces, playing either famished yokels or bit parts in a costume drama, a nation of amateur actors dressed up like murderous Elizabethan explorers, thrilling to the touch of their tights and tunics as they danced for spare change. It would never work. Nova Scotia was for tourist, a gentle, verdant land meeting the sea. What did they call it? "Canada's Ocean Playground". American Buddhists, middle-class followers of some lesser lama, Ginsbergs and Glasses, were flocking to Nova Scotia, to ring their little bells and drone their little chants. Nova Scotia was a good place to meditate. Newfoundland was a good place to repent - a thorny wilderness in which to wander. Newfoundland was in the sea, surrounded and tormented by its forces, at its mercy. Nova Scotia was predictable, the visitors got what they paid for. In Newfoundland they got a seven-hundred-pound moose appearing out of the fog and coming through the windshield at one hundred clicks an hour. Surprise! (148-9)
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Rare Birds is rife with the kind of weather beaten cynicism that brings tears of unbridled joy to my face. Along with Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Rare Birds stands as the quintessential Newfoundland novel, especially in terms of the denizens of St. John's - Ed Riche tries to portray the world weary ennui so predominant there, and he nails it so dead-on that it's almost enough to make me ashamed. Excellent book. Now, if only he'd write another one!
In 2002, Rare Birds was made into a film starring William Hurt, Molly Parker, and Andy Jones of CODCO fame. It just about parallels the book in that it's extremely enjoyable, but it downplays the caustic wit, choosing instead to highlight the kind-hearted insanity of Phonse and the love story between Alice and Dave. She's some beauty of a flick, b'y!