MacIntyre creates scapegoat
Journalist’s experiences inform his latest crime novel
Punishment Linden MacIntyre Random House
Depending on your point of view on the value of publicity, it was either very good or very bad timing.
Just before former CBC journalist Linden MacIntyre was about to start promoting his new novel, Punishment (Random House), late last year, he found himself in the headlines for different reasons.
It happened when the 71-yearold writer and broadcaster, who had recently announced he was stepping down from the CBC, was asked about the Jian Ghomeshi sex scandal during an interview he did to promote both the book and his final segment of the Fifth Estate, the public broadcaster’s flagship investigative program he had co-hosted for 24 years.
When suggesting the celebrity culture that pervades the Mothercorp has led to bullying and abuse in the past, MacIntyre caused an uproar by comparing Ghomeshi to beloved CBC icons Peter Mansbridge and the late Peter Gzowski. An overzealous member of the CBC brass said MacIntyre would be banned from the airwaves. This was later dismissed when it became clear the executive in question had no authority to do so.
But the incident became another chapter in the continuing strife at our public broadcaster, held up by more than one national pundit as an example of the deep dysfunction within. On a more personal level for MacIntyre, it also became a distracting focus of much of the subsequent press coverage for Punishment. But MacIntyre doesn’t seem fazed when asked about it again during a recent Postmedia interview.
“OK, if the book is getting attention because I am notorious,” he says, spicing the last word with a dash of sarcasm, “that’s fine. I don’t care. I can handle that.”
Perhaps it’s fitting. No matter how much acclaim and respect MacIntyre achieves as a novelist — 2009’s The Bishop’s Man picked up the Giller, our country’s top literary prize — it’s doubtful it will ever eclipse his profile as one of the Canada’s most-recognized journalists. Even without the recent controversy, it would be nearly impossible to discuss his fourth novel without referencing his fivedecade career as a reporter.
Punishment is fiction, of course, but the characters, situations, themes and even end-of-story moral can all be traced in one way or another to experiences MacIntyre has had as a broadcaster, particularly those years he spent investigating stranger-than-fiction stories for the Fifth Estate.
Protagonist Tony Breau, a socially conscious, politically progressive and one-time idealistic corrections officer forced into early retirement, was partly inspired by a real warden MacIntyre met at the notorious Millhaven Institution in Ontario. Dwayne Strickland, the troubled and troublemaking ex-con who is at the centre of a tragic incident in Punishment, was a composite of many inmates MacIntyre had got to know on assignment, most notably doomed bank robber Ty Conn, to whom the book is dedicated.
Most of the story takes place in the fictional Nova Scotia village of St. Ninian, where a young girl mysteriously dies and the townsfolk, hungry for vengeance, set sights on Strickland even though there is scant evidence he is directly responsible. But MacIntyre gives the small-town setting a global context by placing the action in 2002, allowing for references to the Iraq war and U.S. response to 9/11 and for the author to draw on his experiences covering conflict in the Middle East.
And then, like all good storytellers, he connected the dots.
“The common denominator is a scapegoat, exaggeration and manipulation and propaganda to justify a pre-determined outcome,” he says. “In this community, the pre-determined outcome is to get rid of Dwayne Strickland. On the international scene, the pre-determined outcome is to get rid of Saddam. In both cases, they justify getting rid of them by making the case they were guilty of serious crime: Here, the death of a young woman and there, 9/11. In both cases, the evidence is very sketchy.”
In St. Ninian, it pits the1 more progressive world view of Breau, who is alienated from his former co-workers after testifying about the death of an inmate a few years earlier, against that of bully Neil Archie MacDonald. MacDonald is also retired, a war vet and former police officer who returns home after working the mean streets of Boston. His views of justice, both in the village and abroad, are of the vengeful tough-on-crime variety. While Punishment is never preachy, it’s clear the story is engineered to provide a clear-cut conclusion for the reader when it comes to justice and rehabilitation.
“The moral of the story is that we’ve got to do a better job of bringing people out of prison,” MacIntyre says. “Let’s stop worrying about throwing more people in, as we’re seeing (recently) in the papers. They are going to increase incarceration and overcrowd prisons even more. And that, in turn, has a horrifying effect. So we’ve got to think of more constructive ways of dealing with the problem of crime.”
Of course, that is the beauty of writing fiction. Unlike the messy reality journalists report on, characters in novels can be predesigned to fit into themes.
“I’ve never really had a problem switching hats, because it’s all a storytelling hat,” MacIntyre says.