In a recent essay for Random House’s online magazine, Hazlitt, Wayne Johnston explained how The Son of a Certain Woman, his ninth novel, was born out of a youthful vow to “one day do for St. John’s, Newfoundland, what Joyce had done for Dublin [in Ulysses].” He decided a few tweaks were necessary though, including jettisoning Ulysses’ main character, Stephen Dedalus, whom he found a “pompous, brooding, self-important boor” and also the novel’s “pointless displays of technical virtuosity” (though it bears noting that some think these “pointless displays” are very much the point). And further: “The characters of Ulysses would, in my book, morph into each other at my whim, à la Finnegan’s Wake.” Johnston’s Leopold Bloom was to be a woman named Penelope, whereas in Ulysses (itself an homage to The Odyssey) the character Molly Bloom stands in for Odysseus’ wife—also called Penelope—and Leopold Bloom for Odysseus. You might say, in other words, that The Son of a Certain Woman is less a palimpsest than a cheerful, if somewhat erratic, instrumental medley.
Two degrees of separation later, Homer’s ubiquitous wine-dark sea has seemingly washed over the face of Johnston’s grotesque adolescent protagonist, Percy Joyce, who was born with “port wine stains” covering most of his face and neck. He also has a rare syndrome that gave him oversized hands and feet and a fat, drooping lower lip. In the parochial, monolithically Catholic St. John’s of the early 1960s, where differences are for stamping out, not celebrating, Percy’s future looks bleak indeed. Yet the only aspect of his condition that seems to trouble him is how it will affect his long- and short-term sexual prospects. He’s thus set his priapic sights on what he takes to be his best bet: his black Irish bombshell of a mother, Penelope Joyce.
“Oedipus complex” doesn’t accurately describe Percy’s feelings for Penelope; Oedipus, after all, was trying to avoid sleeping with his mother. Percy’s motherlust, in contrast, is an entirely conscious response to his mother’s siren-like physical allure: “Would I have fallen in love with my mother if I was normal-looking? Here’s a better question: Would I have fallen in love with my mother if she was normal-looking? Maybe she was as much a product of her looks as I was of mine. We were both exceptional.” Instead of leaving these thoughts to the realm of fantasy, Percy actively propositions his mother using, by way of argument, a compound term unsuitable for family newspapers whose first word is “pity” and whose second rhymes with “duck.” Perhaps more disturbingly, Penelope doesn’t dispel the notion as unreasonable.
Read the full review at the National Post’s Website: