Leo Furey

The Divine Ryans by Wayne Johnston, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1990

In 1986, at the age of twenty-eight, Wayne Johnston won the Books in Canada First Novel Award for The Story of Bobby O'Malley. His second book, The Time of their Li'ves, showed that he was a promising writer. His latest work, The Divine Ryans, is his best performance to ate and proof positive that Mr. Johnston is one of the country's finest story writers.

As in his previous novels, johnston's subject is the family and his narrator is a young male who reminisces in a deceptively casual manner, making us laugh (frequently aloud) again and again while at the same time focusing us to confront many of life's brutal incongruities. Like The Story of Bobby O'Malley, this is a comic novel of the most serious sort. It deals with a youth's coming-of-age. The protagonist, nine-year-old Draper Doyle Ryan, has serious problems. His father, former editor of the family newspaper, "The Daily Chronicle", a strange combination of scandal sheet cum church bulletin, has just died. The young boy and his sister and mother move in with Aunt Phil who rules the Ryan residence (and Reg Ryan's Funeral Home) with an iron fist. Also living in the house is Uncle Reginald, an eccentric who drives the family hearse. Complicating matters is the fact that Draper's growing sexual awareness results in his having weird dreams about the two important woman in his life (Momary is a hybrid of his mother, who appears to him,naked from the waist up, and his sister, Mary, who appears naked from the waist down). Too, the confused nine year old is being visited repeatedly by his father's ghost, who, for some mysterious reason, always holds a hockey puck. Concerned about these "visitations" ' Aunt Phil insists on keeping young Draper in line by putting him in tow with another Ryan uncle, Father Seymour, who runs the local orphanage and is famous about town for his 'Number', a group Of boys who sing, dance and box - "a cross between the Vienna choir boys and the Hilter Youth". Father Seymour's Number is to the parish "what the musical ride is to the Mounties."

In addition to a deadly accurate eye and ear, the author has a clear sense of form which controls what he sees and hears. Draper Doyle's refreshing voice records the world as it is. He speaks with a somber wisdom of family members (even the skeleton in the family closet), of clergy, of neighbours, of school, of hockey, of bedwetting, of everyone and everything. Once or twice, the narrator lapses into commentary that is surprisingly sardonic for a nine year old but, for the most part, the humorous voice is relentlessly honest, forcing us to laugh at characters' follies while at the same time prompting us to empathize with their pain. Time and again I was reminded of the authentic narrative voices of Holden Caulfield and Huck Finn. In the following passage, which occurs when Father Seymour attempts to fasten a necklace, his Christmas gift, around the neck of Draper's mother, we witness the keen observations of a youth alone in the phoney adult world:

 There was an awkward moment, or more
 like an awkward ten minutes when, on
 Aunt Phil's insistence Father Seymour
 tried to put the necklace around my
 mother's neck.  He was tall enough,
 but unfortunately tried to put it on
 from the front and stood for an
 embarrassing amount of time more or
 less face to face with my mother's
 bosom, more or less embracing her,
 while she tried to smile and he
 struggled to join the clasp of the
 necklace for perhaps the first time
 in his life.  No one wanted to
 acknowledge the awkwardness of what
 was happening by telling him to put
 it on behind.

The confessional account too has the authentic ring of Salinger and Twain.

 When Father Seymour had heard
 Sister Lousie, he would come out
 across the altar, his confession
 stole about his shoulders, and
 hurry down one of the side aisles,
 taking great care not to look into
 the pews, acting as if he didn't
 know that it was Wednesday,
 that among those penitents who
 were waiting for him was his
 entire family with whom he would
 have dinner afterwards ...
 As for me, I dreaded what Uncle
 Reginald called my "two minutes
 in the box" with Father Seymour.
 I hated the waiting. I remember the
 murmuring voices from inside the
 box ... But Father Seymour always
 recognized my voice - I could tell
 by the tone of his voice, in which
 there was a warning against my
 being in any way familiar with

Moments later, Draper reflects in a manner reminiscent of Huck:

 Each week, I stared at my mother,
 wondering what she had told Father
 Seymour.  Did she worry too, about
 what Aunt Phil might or might not
 have told him? ... Had she
 foolhardily confessed to some
 embarrassing sin and was now
 regretting it, or had she given so
 glowing an account of herself that
 Father Seymour had guessed that
 she was lying.
 I never felt more guilt-ridden
 than I did when leaving the
 confessional, what with all the
 lies I told while I was in

Draper Doyle can lie as effectively as Huck en route to Goshen. The encounter with the sales clerk at Woolworth's is just such a scene. But like Huck and Holden, he refuses to commit the big lie, the adult lie. In fact, Draper's world is a kind of comic hell because of his struggle with the family's attempt to hide the truth about his father's death. He cannot lie to himself even when the price is either a private nightmare resulting in chronic bed-wetting or public humiliation. Nowhere is this clearer in the book than in the concert scene when Draper Doyle has to choose between feigning reality (he is forced to lip-sync in Father Seymour's choir in order to impress his family) and making an honest attempt at communicating with an illusion, his father's ghost, which appears at the back of the hall. He chooses the latter, the consequence of which places him iii direct conflict with the archbishop around whom the adult world "acted as if the point was not to impress (him) but to refrain from doing anything which would startle him into an awareness of his surrounding." This book is packed with wonderful comic moments. Johnston is a wordsmith who effectively charges his language with witticisms, aphorisms, puns, and conceits. Typical of his humour is the Dickensian interplay between Draper and Uncle Reg at Christmastime.

  I often played Tiny Tim to Uncle
 Reginald's Scrooge, or Uncle 
 Scrooginald, as he called himself.
 "Please, Mr. Scrooge," I'd say 
 something to eat for my little
  "I will give you," Uncle
 Scrooginald would say, "in
 exchange for your wheelchair and
 your sister's crutch, and all the
 clothes that you and your sister
 have on your backs, one cup of
 lukewarm water."
  "Oh, God bless you, Mr. Scrooge,"
 I'd say.  "God bless you, you're
 a saint."
  Other times, I played Scrooge's
 nephew, blurting out "I say, Uncle,
 make merry," whenever Uncle
 Reginald was looking glum.  Uncle
 Reginald would respond, "I say,
 nephew, if you persist in this
 nauseating cheerfulness, I shall
 make pudding of your plums."

As in his earlier works, there is a strong undercurrent of pathos in this novel. Among the many tender moments are the confrontation between Mom and Aunt Phil, and the tenderest scene of all, when Draper attempts to surprise his Dad on his father's birthday and literally gets the surprise of his life. There are dark strokes throughout the book but, on the whole, the colours are extremely bright. Mr. Johnston is first and foremost a comic writer. And this reader hopes we haven't seen the last of Draper Doyle's amusing antics and the comic capering of his mad-hatter relatives.

A final note! While reading this delightful fiction, I stopped more than once to consider what a wonderful film the Codco crew could make of The Divine Ryans. Both Mr. Johnston and Godco paint credible pictures of 'growing up Catholic' in St. john's in the fifties and sixties. What howls and belly chortles we'd be treated to were Codco given the opportunity to televise some of the hilariously funny episodes. To name but a few: Uncle Reg using the lift to get the kids ready for school; the family meals; Draper's psychooralysis sessions with his eccentric uncle; the goalie show-down between Draper and his sister; the concert; the boxing match; Draper's trips to Woolworth's to purchase underwear; and that splendid finale, the Apuckalypse. These and so many more marvelous moments in this fine book deserve to be put on the screen, if for no other reason than to bring this delightful collection of characters to those who do not read.