In Magical 'Trilogy,' A Labyrinth Of Past And Present

Deptford
The Deptford Trilogy
By Roberston Davies
Paperback, 832 pages
Penguin Books
List Price: $22

Read An Excerpt

Robertson Davies is the witty, occasionally terrifying, stunningly erudite uncle you wish you had. (Or maybe you had one; I had Uncle Archie, the lady's man, whom we all knew to stay away from, and Uncle Jack, a crook with brilliantined hair and hard eyes).

I have read all of the Davies' trilogies (The Deptford, The Cornish and The Salterton) and I can recommend two — The Cornish and the Salterton — to David Lodge and even P.G. Wodehouse fans. But I recommend The Deptford Trilogy — composed of Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders — to everyone who can read English.

The first novel opens with two little boys: Dunstable "Dunny" Ramsay (the smart, scrawny one) and Boy Staunton (the clever, brutish one). They are friends of a kind, and rivals, in a small town in Ontario, Canada in the early 20th century. There is a sad, distressing couple in this town, the Dempsters. He a Christian minister, she his downtrodden, pregnant wife. Boy, annoyed that Dunny has beaten him in a sled race, throws a snowball — with a rock concealed within it — at Dunny.

It misses him. It hits poor Mary Dempster. She goes into early labor, delivers baby Paul and goes mad (or becomes a saint, or both, in the course of a long, mystical and mystifying life).

At nearly 10, after a life of misery and neglect, little Paul runs off and joins the circus, where far worse things happen to him. Dunny fights in World War I, loses a limb and a girlfriend and becomes a schoolteacher. Boy becomes a successful philanthropist and marries the girl who dumped Dunny.

These three men are locked together, often kicking and biting, for three rambunctiously plotted, elegantly written and funny novels, in which the terrible rock-within-a-snowball and the inevitable lie-revealed-within-a-truth occur with just often enough. Fifth Business is not only the title of the first book in the trilogy, it is the theme of Dunny's life. It is the theme of every life.

Amy Bloom is the author of Away and Where the God of Love Hangs Out.

Amy Bloom is the author of Away and Where the God of Love Hangs Out. Beth Kelly hide caption

itoggle caption Beth Kelly

In opera, fifth business is the character who is not the prima donna, not the tenor, her lover, not the contralto, her rival. He is the odd man out, the player who is necessary but rarely the star. Dunny's close friend, an impresario, tells Dunny that, like the rest of us, he must understand his life, in order to live it; that he must face up to being fifth business. In the last book, Dunny's life comes into focus for him and he becomes the storyteller and the fulcrum for the lives of the other two.

Robertson Davies did not skimp on plot, on character, on big ideas and straightforward language, on general wackiness, on everyday saints or on a deep, rueful compassion for his characters. He was a joyful, erudite, passionate storyteller who knew how to let the sails in and out. A favorite line of mine, in which Davies summarizes a man's life — with wit and unexpected sincerity:

"He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was the keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone."

It's all in the telling, folks.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.

Excerpt: 'The Deptford Trilogy'

Deptford
The Deptford Trilogy
By Roberston Davies
Paperback, 832 pages
Penguin Books
List Price: $22

Read An Excerpt

My lifelong involvement with Mrs. Dempster began at 5:58 o'clock p.m. on the 27th of December, 1908, at which time I was ten years and seven months old.

I am able to date the occasion with complete certainty because that afternoon I had been sledding with my lifelong friend and enemy Percy Boyd Staunton, and we had quarrelled, because his fine new Christmas sled would not go as fast as my old one. Snow was never heavy in our part of the world, but this Christmas it had been plentiful enough almost to cover the tallest spears of dried grass in the fields; in such snow his sled with its tall runners and foolish steering apparatus was clumsy and apt to stick, whereas my low-slung old affair would almost have slid on grass without snow.

The afternoon had been humiliating to him, and when Percy was humiliated he was vindictive. His parents were rich, his clothes were fine, and his mittens were of skin and came from a store in the city, whereas mine were knitted by my mother; it was manifestly wrong, therefore, that his splendid sled should not go faster than mine, and when such injustice showed itself Percy became cranky. He slighted my sled, scoffed at my mittens, and at last came right out and said that his father was better than my father. Instead of hitting him, which might have started a fight that could have ended in a draw or even a defeat for me, I said, all right, then, I would go home and he could have the field to himself. This was crafty of me, for I knew it was getting on for suppertime, and one of our home rules was that nobody, under any circumstances, was to be late for a meal. So I was keeping the home rule, while at the same time leaving Percy to himself.

As I walked back to the village he followed me, shouting fresh insults. When I walked, he taunted, I staggered like an old cow; my woollen cap was absurd beyond all belief; my backside was immense and wobbled when I walked; and more of the same sort, for his invention was not lively. I said nothing, because I knew that this spited him more than any retort, and that every time he shouted at me he lost face.

Our village was so small that you came on it at once; it lacked the dignity of outskirts. I darted up our street, putting on speed, for I had looked ostentatiously at my new Christmas dollar watch (Percy had a watch but was not let wear it because it was too good) and saw that it was 5:57; just time to get indoors, wash my hands in the noisy, splashy way my parents seemed to like, and be in my place at six, my head bent for grace. Percy was by this time hopping mad, and I knew I had spoiled his supper and probably his whole evening. Then the unforeseen took over.

Walking up the street ahead of me were the Reverend Amasa Dempster and his wife; he had her arm tucked in his and was leaning toward her in the protective way he had. I was familiar with this sight, for they always took a walk at this time, after dark and when most people were at supper, because Mrs. Dempster was going to have a baby, and it was not common in our village for pregnant women to show themselves boldly in the streets — not if they had any position to keep up, and of course the Baptist minister's wife had a position. Percy had been throwing snowballs at me, from time to time, and I had ducked them all; I had a boy's sense of when a snowball was coming, and I knew Percy. I was sure that he would try to land one last, insulting snowball between my shoulders before I ducked into our house. I stepped briskly — not running, not dawdling — in front of the Dempsters just as Percy threw, and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head. She gave a cry and, clinging to her husband, slipped to the ground; he might have caught her if he had not turned at once to see who had thrown the snowball.

I had meant to dart into our house, but I was unnerved by hearing Mrs. Dempster; I had never heard an adult cry in pain before and the sound was terrible to me. Falling, she burst into nervous tears and suddenly there she was, on the ground, with her husband kneeling beside her, holding her in his arms and speaking to her in terms of endearment that were strange and embarrassing to me; I had never heard married people — or any people — speak in unashamedly loving words before. I knew that I was watching a "scene," my parents had always warned against scenes as very serious breaches of propriety. I stood gaping, and then Mr. Dempster became conscious of me.

"Dunny," he said — I did not know he knew my name — "lend us your sleigh and get my wife home."

I was contrite and guilty, for I knew that the snowball had been meant for me, but the Dempsters did not seem to think of that. He lifted his wife on my sled, which was not hard because she was a small, girlish woman, and as I pulled it toward their house he walked beside it, very awkwardly bent over her, supporting her and uttering soft endearment and encouragement, for she went on crying, like a child.

Their house was not far away — just around the corner, really — but by the time I had been there, and seen Mr. Dempster take his wife inside, and found myself unwanted outside, it was a few minutes after six, and I was late for supper. But I pelted home (pausing only for a moment at the scene of the accident), washed my hands, slipped into my place at the table, and made my excuse, looking straight into my mother's sternly interrogative eyes. I gave my story a slight historical bias, leaning firmly but not absurdly on my own role as the Good Samaritan. I suppressed any information or guesswork about where the snowball had come from, and to my relief my mother did not pursue that aspect of it. She was much more interested in Mrs. Dempster, and when supper was over and the dishes washed she told my father she thought she would just step over to the Dempsters' and see if there was anything she could do.

On the face of it this was a curious decision of my mother's for of course we were Presbyterians, and Mrs. Dempster was the wife of the Baptist parson. Not that there was any ill-will among the denominations in our village, but it was understood that each looked after its own, unless a situation got too big, when outside help might be called in. But my mother was, in a modest way, a specialist in matters relating to pregnancy and childbirth; Dr. McCausland had once paid her the great compliment of saying that "Mrs. Ramsay had her head screwed on straight"; she was ready to put this levelness of head at the service of almost anybody who needed it. And she had a tenderness, never obviously displayed, for poor, silly Mrs. Dempster, who was not twenty-one yet and utterly unfit to be a preacher's wife.

So off she went, and I read my Christmas annual of the Boy's Own Paper, and my father read something that looked hard and had small print, and my older brother Willie read The Cruise of the "Catchalot," all of us sitting round the base-burner with our feet on the nickel guard, till half-past eight, and then we boys were sent to bed. I have never been quick to go to sleep, and I lay awake until the clock downstairs struck half-past nine, and shortly after that I heard my mother return. There was a stovepipe in our house that came from the general living-room into the upstairs hall, and it was a fine conductor of sound. I crept out into the hall — Willie slept like a bear — put my ear as near to it as the heat permitted and heard my mother say:

"I've just come back for a few things. I'll probably be all night. Get me all the baby blankets out of the trunk, and then go right down to Ruckle's and make him get you a big roll of cotton wool fro the store — the finest he has — and bring it to the Dempsters'. The doctor says if it isn't a big roll to get two."

"You don't mean it's coming now?"

"Yes. Away early. Don't wait up for me."

But of course he did wait up for her, and it was four in the morning when she came home, self-possessed and grim, as I could tell from her voice as I heard them talking before she returned to the Dempsters' — why, I did not know. And I lay awake too, feeling guilty and strange.

That was how Paul Dempster, whose reputation is doubtless familiar to you (though that was not the name under which he gained it), came to be born early on the morning of December 28 in 1908.

Excerpted from The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. Copyright 1983 by Robertson Davies. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Books.

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