ON THE NIGHT TABLE Shades of Dickens in Weir’s western
I just finished Dave Bidini’s book Midnight Light: A Personal Journey to the North; it’s his best book by a long stretch. It’s about his time in Yellowknife, discovering the North as someone who thinks he knows almost everything about Canada.
He discovers an entirely different country and characters; it’s written with such empathy and curiosity and humility. I’ve also been reading Andrea Warner’s Buffy SainteMarie: The Authorized Biography — it’s eye-opening, honest, beautifully written and truthful. It accords the artist the importance she has long deserved, but also deals with a lot of painful truths in her life that I worried would be glossed over because it’s an authorized book. YOU’D be right to think the title The Life and Death of Strother Purcell indicates an epic of some sort. With almost Dickensian glee and skill, British Columbia novelist and playwright Ian Weir has taken the myths of the American West, with a solid, lovely glop of its Canadian counterpart, and created an expansive odyssey in the form of an academic’s search for the truth.
That truth, whatever it may mean, is in the many testaments relating the story of Strother Purcell, his outlaw brother Lige and the plethora of characters, from family to bystanders, who help form and drive the journey of their coming to terms with justice, betrayal, revenge and love.
Our way into this epic — and Weir isn’t coy at dropping hints he means the novel as such, at one point evoking Ovid — is through a scholar, Professor Brookmire. One day he is handed a memoir containing the known story of the legendary Strother Purcell, a man feared by no less than Wyatt Earp. Brookmire dives in, and the power of Weir’s multi-layered narrative makes us grab hold and dive with him. Nothing is as it seems. Purcell, presumed dead in the winter landscape of B.C.’s Cariboo country, appears (alive) in the booming San Francisco of 1892. An ambitious yellow-press journalist, Barry Weaver, presses him for his story.
Strother’s beginning in the far reaches of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains involves the commencement The Death and Life of Strother Purcell By Ian Weir
Goose Lane Editions, 392 pages, $23
of a blood feud amongst three families, above all between the almostdemented Collards and the slightly less crazy Purcells.
As with Dickens, no character is wasted along the journey in the exquisitely slow building story of Purcell’s retribution for the casualties of the original feud.
The brothers discover fate is inexorable; despite their brutal behaviour, nothing finally can keep them apart. Again relating the novel to ancient epics, in the end the “good” get what they deserve, as do the “bad,” and those in between (like the hapless Barry) are left to tell the story. Even then, Weir doesn’t pass judgment — his characters are capable of doing that.
The tapestry the author weaves is enticing; the reader is drawn in to a world as distant as the ancients, but as near as a century or so ago.
One could go on at the power of detail Weir brings, especially in the language used. Its particular richness reminds one that eloquence in this religious, pre-tech era was the remnant of the Elizabethans, the King James Bible and the ever-recurring Greek and Roman myths. How to resist a book which includes “susurrations,” “ensorcelled” and “eldritch” without pretension?
The wonder is that the numerous “testaments” which relate the story have this eloquence, yet each is individual to its narrator.
These fragments immediately capture the imagination without reminding us of any other in the novel, yet inform the whole in an almost astonishing way, page by page. The climax is a model of dynamic, precise intercutting.
The Death and Life of Strother Purcell is a great yarn, an extraordinary epic of lives marked by the power of guilt and forgiveness at its best. Its humanity shines brightly.