Register Thursday | October 21 | 2021

Fire and Lice

Peter Behrens' The Law of Dreams

I remember very clearly the first time I was caught drunk.  Not the kind of drunk that results from stealing a few beers from your dad's fridge, but a slurring, water-bottle-of-whiskey drunk. A misguided, teenage Jesus, I had furtively drained the wine from my family's liquor cabinet and refilled the empty bottles with tap water. I was only fifteen. My curfew was 10:00 p.m. My dad got back early.

As I struggled to get my shoes on, my friends bundled me up and pushed me outside to meet my maker. I stumbled to the car, opened the door and fell onto the passenger seat. Before we had even turned the corner, my window was down, my friends were waving goodbye, and my dinner was coming up. "It's just a little food poisoning, Dad!" The next few days were unbearable. I had a headache, I felt nauseous, and I was in serious trouble.

Somehow, this literary bender brings me back to that cataclysmic drive home. My head is pounding, I feel kind of nauseous, and I think I've made a mistake. I'm not exactly eating my words. It's more like I'm chewing on them with apprehension. De Niro's Game was a revelation and I predicted that it would win. But, I hadn't yet read Peter Behrens' The Law of Dreams.

The Law of Dreams follows Fergus as he makes his way from rural Ireland to Montreal. As a young man, Fergus is orphaned when typhus kills his entire family. In order to prevent the fearsome particles from spreading, officers set his house on fire. Behrens' novel begins with this haunting image:

"Burning scraws of turf were falling everywhere. His parents' bed was ablaze; he saw their arms lifting up, flames shooting between his father's legs.  Fergus tried dragging him from the bed while the fire pecked his hands fiercely. His father's clothes were alight, his eyes were open, wide and white; his mouth was open, a hole."

With no one to turn to, and nowhere to go, Fergus seeks refuge in a workhouse. Here Fergus befriends Murty Larry, who shortly dies from the black fever. Fergus decides that he must get to Limerick, which comes to represent salvation for the boy. On the way, Fergus meets the Bog Boys, a group of children who steal their survival from wealthy travellers. He meets Luke, the female leader of the boys, and falls in love. Luke and most of the Boy Boys are shot dead during an impromptu heist:

"Fergus stood just outside the curtain, shivering, his resolve slowly leaking away. Finally he unloaded the pistol, replaced it on the shelf, and returned to his crib where he fell asleep and dreamed of Luke fleeing across the bog, her boys chasing her. She was covered in scratches and they had been licking her blood."

Once again, Fergus finds himself alone and hungry in a world characterized by famine. Like Odysseus before him, Fergus battles Scylla and Charybdis-or rather, their incarnations-via houses of ill repute en route to someplace he can call home. Home, however, proves to be more elusive than Fergus had bargained for.

Behrens' novel shoved dirt under my nails. It transformed my clothes into wet, threadbare rags. While reading, I noticed that my coffee tasted like yellow gruel-without the mutton. The Law of Dreams locks its reader into a crowded, lice-ridden workhouse until Fergus finishes his story. At times almost mythological in its scope, The Law of Dreams is an ambitious, difficult, and engrossing work of literature.

At the beginning of the novel, Fergus thinks:

"You could eat pain and come out alive. It was a silent meal. You could eat pain, even find a relish. You ate unhurried. You made certain to taste every bite. You could eat pain; it wouldn't kill you."

Behren's novel forces us to eat Fergus's pain and challenges us not to ask for more.

Whereas De Niro's Game assaults its reader with breakneck explosions of violence, The Law of Dreams offers its readers a drink of water every now and again to prolong the pain of sharing Fergus' life. The Law of Dreams is a brutal, hopeful, and yet tender account of one boy's struggle to amputate himself from the ghosts of his past.

And this is why I've slightly altered my premature prediction that De Niro's Game will win the 2006 Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. I think that The Law of Dreams would be an equally admirable winner. So, I'll bet my house on this: one of these novels will win;  both, however, deserve to.

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Join me tomorrow for. . .wait, what's that?  I've finished all the books?  That can't be right. Well, what should I do now? I guess there's always next year. What about Scotiabank Gillerly Speaking? Let me sleep on it.