A Good Man

November 20, 2011

Every time I read something by Guy Vanderhaeghe I’m struck by its beauty and its depth, so I guess the obvious question is why it’s taken me so long to add his books to my definite, “as soon as they come out,” to-read list. His story The Dancing Bear was one of the most memorable we read in high school (we read a lot of Canadian short stories, but not a lot of novel-length fiction, or at least as much as we could have). And yet, while the novels have a level of historical detail, thickly-woven plots, and a depth of characterization that I love, the overall impact for me is often impressionistic–I’m better able to discuss the strong thoughts and feelings they evoke than the detail.

A Good Man, straightforwardly enough, is a meditation on what makes a good man, which is always a more complex exercise than it seems. For some, it’s a position of leadership–here, Sitting Bull, having learned the wisdom in his old age not to confront a raging man, but losing his people’s trust. For some, the love of a good woman–Michael Dunne, wanting to be his “very best self” for the woman he loves. Moral uprightness comes with its own complications, as Joe McMullen, James Morrow Walsh, and the protagonist (although the other characters are so well-realized it almost feels inaccurate to call him so) Wesley Case have learned.

These complications lead, perhaps, to an understanding that forgiveness (and self-forgiveness) is an integral part of goodness, and to the suggestion that joy is key to a proper response to a world of tragedy.