In each issue of Capital Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, professor and novelist Brett Josef Grubisic recommends Don Hannah’s The Wise and Foolish Virgins (Random House, 1998).
When I walked to the bookstore to order The Wise and Foolish Virgins for my Intro to Canlit class, I had a few misgivings. As much as I enjoyed Don Hannah’s warts-and-all portrait of small-town New Brunswick, I had to wonder if his thick slice of Maritime gothic wasn’t a bit heavy for my students.
It might be that the novel’s laundry list of taboo subjects made it an unwise choice for a class supposedly focussed on the discussion of ideas. After all, there’s nothing like homosexuality, non-consensual sex, violence, guilt, religion, disease and death to silence a group that’s barely reached voting age.
But there’s such a feast of qualities to savour.
Set in a town that has seen better days — about a century ago — the 1998 novel’s tight weave of plot features sexual repression and abuse, teen pregnancy, pederasty, kidnapping, fervent religiosity, AIDS and enough family dysfunction to keep a small army of counsellors busy.
At the story’s centre is Sandy, an elderly bachelor who lives alone in his family’s imposing, if run down, mansion. Profoundly conflicted and closeted, Sandy’s fortunes change when a teenaged runaway passes out dead-drunk in his backyard. Lonely beyond belief, Sandy envisions him as a lovely angel. He takes the unconscious youth inside and then ties him up, comfortable in his delusion that he will rescue the boy and begin a romance.
Meanwhile, the teen’s pregnant girlfriend seeks abortion counseling from Sandy’s devout friend Margaret — who has never recovered from her father’s sexual attention — and Sandy’s housekeeper Gloria nervously anticipates the return of her brother Raymond, who fled to Toronto years ago. Raymond’s arrival, with both a boyfriend and AIDS-related ailments, pushes an already volatile family into crisis. (Hannah, no stranger to comic relief, signals heightened anxiety through the crippling flatulence of Raymond’s mom.)
Describing the plot this way makes it sound operatic, if not an over-the-top melodrama. It’s not at all. Hannah, who grew up in Shediac, NB (population 5,400), artfully captures the stifling yet also comforting atmosphere of a past-its-prime town in which everyone knows everyone’s business. More importantly, the author’s compassion for each of his characters renders them deeply sympathetic. Though many of the characters — the religious zealot, the closeted pederast, the homophobic redneck — are damaged and trapped by circumstance, Hannah’s examination highlights their humanity and their willingness to change. He also offers them quiet yet profound moments of redemption.
And, lest I forget, the novel’s closing scene, during which Raymond and his reunited family witness the majesty of an enormous flock of sandpipers taking flight, could bring Cruella de Vil to tears.
I decided to order it for my class.
So it was disappointing when, a few weeks later, the bookstore called to tell me that the novel’s publisher didn’t have enough copies in its warehouse. The book, in other words, was virtually out of print. It’s my hope that the success of Ragged Islands, Hannah’s second novel, will encourage a new printing. The Wise and Foolish Virgins definitely deserves the attention.