“You just clench your teeth and keep on going”: Linden MacIntyre on masculinity, moral ambiguity, and why he hates golf

Linden MacIntyre does not care for golf. The journalist and Scotabank Giller Prize–winning novelist will admit to having made it out on the links once or twice in his life, but claims to have derived no pleasure or accomplishment out of the experience. “I wasn’t just a bad golfer. I was a non-golfer who was exposed on the golf course as a golf hater,” he says.

The author’s antipathy toward the sport – “Golfers really take a joy out of watching the failures of other golfers” – makes it at least curious that he opens and closes his sixth novel with scenes on a golf course. The scenes bookend The Winter Wives, the first featuring longtime friends Angus (called Byron by those who know him) and Allan sharing an afternoon outing when the latter suffers a debilitating stroke. The final scene involves Byron scattering his friend’s ashes in the place they shared their last happy memory. (It is no spoiler to note that Allan dies: he is in diminished capacity for the bulk of the novel’s narrative present, experiencing dementia as a result of his neurological event at the book’s outset.)

The novel flips back and forth in time to examine the intertwining histories of Byron, the quiet, more introverted character, and Allan, a former high-school football star who went on to make a fortune for himself in part by running drugs and laundering money. Along the way, we encounter the titular wives – a pair of sisters who marry the two men, though Byron has always been infatuated with Allan’s wife, Peggy Winter. It was Peggy who gave Byron his ironic nickname, reflective of one of the most priapic poets in the English literary canon.

The final third of The Winter Wives, which turns into a kind of crime thriller involving Byron’s discovery of the extent to which his friend was involved with unsavoury characters and duplicitous dealings, is among the most heavily plotted section in any of MacIntyre’s novels. “It was heavily plotted, for sure, but in a very quick way,” the author says, pointing out that he leaned on his experience as an investigative journalist for CBC’s the fifth estate to come up with the specifics of Alan’s criminal résumé.

But that was not where The Winter Wives began. The germ of the story was much more human and everyday, MacIntyre says. “I started out with a story about someone who finds himself first of all entrapped by somebody else’s dementia, then entrapped by his own fear of dementia. It grew out from there.”

In addition to its examination of aging and the ravages the body and mind are heir to, the book takes up themes of complicated masculinity that have pervaded MacIntyre’s fiction from his debut novel, 1999’s The Long Stretch, and continue through his Giller winner, The Bishop’s Man, its follow-up, Why Men Lie, right up to 2017’s The Only Café. MacIntyre attributes his fascination with masculinity and the lives of men – especially those who these days would be slapped with the derisory label “toxic” – to his own experience growing up. His childhood was spent in small-town Cape Breton, where he was surrounded by women, his mother, sisters, and elementary school teachers among them. “I didn’t have much of a relationship with masculinity growing up,” he says. “I grew up among women.”

His father, a miner, was away from home for extended periods at a time, and MacIntyre felt shut out of the traditional markers of maleness that included athleticism and physical strength and build. “I always found myself excluded by the masculine exemplars – the big guys, the athletes, the tough guys. I always felt myself not like them,” he says. “That leaves you with a huge curiosity.”

This curiosity has led to a series of books that examine in almost forensic detail the ways in which men act and behave, but they do so without recourse to a Manichean separation between good and bad figures. One of the thoroughgoing elements in MacIntyre’s fiction is a determination to investigate complicated characters in all their muddiness and contradiction, an aspect of his writing that is uncommon and has the potential to make readers uncomfortable.

For Anne Collins, who has edited all of MacIntyre’s novels since The Bishop’s Man, this discomfort is precisely the point. “In The Bishop’s Man, our protagonist, the priest – you can’t help but be in his head and on his side, even as you understand his complicity with a power structure that is reprehensible and damages the innocent,” she says. “No one should be surprised that a guy who has reported the way Linden has reported and whose head works the way Linden’s head works can take you pretty much as close to that dark heart as you need to go.”

As a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, MacIntyre has proved reluctant to act as moral arbiter, preferring instead to dramatize complex figures and allow his readers to draw whatever conclusions they will about the people he presents on the page. “In my experience I have found that it’s really tricky to come to a conclusion about the moral quality of anybody,” he says. “I don’t know whether there is a religious or an institutional equivalent, but I took a wishy-washy position that there are no good people and there are no bad people. There are people who do good things and bad things for complicated reasons.”

“The hardest part of fiction, for me, is trying to make an honest relationship between myself and the person I want to describe.” (Photo: Tom Zsolt)

This attitude puts MacIntyre squarely at odds with the current zeitgeist, much of which – especially on social media, where MacIntyre is conspicuously absent – is predicated upon unachievable demands for complete moral purity. By eschewing this approach in favour of nuance and an attempt at understanding, MacIntyre is able to produce characters and scenarios that are not simply more interesting than one-dimensional heroes and villains, but also more true to life. “It’s incumbent upon me as a writer, and I think it’s incumbent upon society as an organizing mechanism, to spend more time trying to find out why people do bad things and good things than to try to prove somebody is evil or not.”

Where Byron is concerned, this is particularly germane. One key element in the book involves a sexual assault that reconfigures our understanding of significant characters. Byron’s youthful infatuation is captured in a pair of scenes with Peggy that take place in flashback on a boat; once he had those written, MacIntyre saw a direct line to the rape scene later in the book, a line he was unsure he wanted to follow to its inevitable conclusion. “Once those scenes [on the boat] insinuated themselves into the narrative, I suddenly realized where all this was going,” MacIntyre says. “And I’m not sure if I want to take it there but I’m going to go anyway.”

Working up the courage to pursue his narrative to the place it insisted it had to go involved a process of sloughing off external expectations and simply following his gut. “That’s the attitude you have to take: nobody will ever read this, the door is shut, and you just get it down there,” he says. “You just clench your teeth and keep on going and see where it takes you.”

Where the novel took MacIntyre – and where it takes readers – involves some undeniably dark material, but that material is couched in a nuanced investigation of human nature, something that, where Byron is concerned, the author says is more interesting to him than a reductive view of the character as hero or monster. “It’s more interesting to me to find out why he did the bad thing than it is to condemn him.”

This sensibility has allowed MacIntyre, in his journalism as well as his fiction and nonfiction, to excavate complicated truths about humanity while also holding tight to a rigorous empathy and understanding of human experience. “We all carry injury within ourselves, whether it’s emotional, psychological, or physical,” McIntyre says. “We all have to overcome certain handicaps and factors that get built into our experience from the time that we start to toddle around.”

It’s an understanding that, unlike much of contemporary postmodern sociological theory, is predicated upon the notion that there is more that unites us than divides us. “At the core of everything, we’re the same. If you can get to that core, then you work backward,” McIntyre says. “The hardest part of fiction, for me, is trying to make an honest relationship between myself and the person I want to describe. And more important, the person I want to read what I’m writing and to identify with it.”

MacIntyre sees this process at work not just in novels but in his journalism. “Whether you’re dealing with a fiction or nonfiction process, you’re going to end up at the same place on the page,” he says. But though the starting point for both genres may be the same, the author is quick to point out that the novel allows for access to a potentially deeper well of fellow feeling based on the perceptions and perspectives of the novelist. “I look upon it as all storytelling. And I look upon it all as an attempt to find out what’s true about the lives and personalities and experiences of people,” he says. “Sometimes the easiest and deepest penetration will happen in the medium of fiction because you can use your own consciousness as a roadmap.”

“The novels are the places [MacIntyre] can put all he guesses and all he knows and all he’s witnessed. No matter the surface joys of the story or the plotting or the characterization or the dialogue or any of it, the mainspring of each one has been him staring at some form of evil, some complicity, some violent act,” says Collins. “The novels then tease out how those acts echo in his characters’ lives and also down the generations.”

The result has been to render the author – whether he is writing fiction or nonfiction – one of the most perspicacious investigators of the human condition we have in this country. None of which does much, however, to remedy one of MacIntyre’s few remaining concerns at this point in his career: why he is so bad at the game of golf. “What is so hard about striking an obvious, white, stationary object with a highly engineered weapon, sending it off, and then doing that again a few more times?” he muses. “If I thought for five minutes that I could be good at it, I might not be so negative. But it is something that is denied to me.”

“You just clench your teeth and keep on going”: Linden MacIntyre on masculinity, moral ambiguity, and why he hates golf
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