Friday, August 12, 2011

The Cunning Man

"Should I have taken the false teeth?"

A great opening line delivered by the narrator, Jonathan Hullah, a physician who grows up in Sioux Lookout where two medical practitioners are presented as possible models. One is a shamanistic healer, the other a second-rate doctor who is also the town's bootlegger.

Hullah goes away to a boarding school where he makes two close friends, Charles Iredale and Brocky Gilmartin, whose lives continue to intertwine with his own throughout adulthood. Iredale becomes an Anglican priest, Gilmartin a respected prof of English literature, and Hullah a doctor who employs unorthodox methods of diagnosis. Their professions provide the three principal motifs in the book, and give Davies a broad canvas on which to display his erudition. There is a boggling number of literary references, as well as forays into theatre, opera, painting, and church music.

But the great thing about Davies is the way he mixes his erudition with comedy, often of the ribald variety. Here is Hullah examining one of his patients:

...not that he demanded to peep up her chimney, or anythng like that...but he stared at her until she said she blushed from head to toe. Then he poked at her with an enquiring finger simply everywhere! He grabbed her tum until she thought he was trying to dislodge something inside, but it appears it was just an unusually prolonged and searching examination of the spleen. He made her turn over and did the same sort of investigation of her back, including a prolonged parting of the buttocks while he seemed to be staring at her exit – about which she seems to be extremely secretive. He did a lot about feet. Then – and this is what really shook her -- he began to sniff at her, very close up, and he sniffed her from head to foot, very slowly and even quite a lot of sniffing in that area which Miss Fothergill described as You Know Where...

But he's not merely a "twat-sniffer." He believes the health of the body is inextricably bound up with the health of the spirit, and combines modern medical techniques with enemas and poetry-reading. He refers to himself as a Paracelsian physician, melding humanism with medicine. He is the modern version of a village wise man who can also mend bones – a "Cunning Man."

The novel proceeds with a combination of satisfying plot twists, outrageous incidents, and lots of playful but wide-ranging dialogue fueled by good wine and fine scotch. There is a murder, a couple of miracles, a bad breath contest, and a scene during the war when a bomb explodes while Hullah is taking a bath, leaving him trapped in the tub for four days.

In the penultimate chapter Davies introduces a brave new character who takes over some of the narrative duties. She writes numerous letters in an amusing "schoolgirl-slangy vein," letters which later come into Hullah's possession. When he incorporates them into his Case Book and comments on them, the result is an interesting narrative crossfire.

In the final section Hullah reaches retirement age and devotes himself to working on a revolutionary approach to literature. He is going to re-evaluate the the characters of great works from a medical point of view. Was Shakespeare constipated? What about Mr. Pickwick's prostate? The Anatomy of Fiction will be the title, in homage to Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, from which is taken The Cunning Man's epigraph.

Some Great Lines

A brief sampling of the many delightful turns of phrase:

She blabs to conquer.
a trumpeting of flatus
a hymen like parchment
a melting young beauty
English beef-witted folly
some dark cupboard in my mind
the portcullis of respectability
the small change of her conversation
The church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.


The book has an astonishing number of characters. Many of them are minor, some appearing only once, but Davies names them all, a formidable task in itself. He always comes up with some great ones.

Dr. Ogg
Elsie Smoke
Hugh McWearie
Emily Raven-Hart
Edwin Allchin
Richard Craigie
Father Ninian Hobbes
Father Tommy Whimble
Pansy Freake Todhunter (aka Chips)
Hercules McNabb and his wife Dorsy
Lieutenant Dorrington
Prudence Vizard
Joe Sliter

An Unfinished Trilogy

One of the sweetest aspects of Davies's work is the way the books in his trilogies complement each other. The Gilmartin family tree was exhaustively explored in the preceding book, Murther & Walking Spirits, and while not necessary to understand The Cunning Man, it so enriches it that I've revised somewhat my earlier opinion of that book.

The ending in particular harkens back to Murther in a couple of respects – Esme wondering whether Gil's ghost might be hanging around, and a misdirected telephone inquiry about a movie. Those who have read Murther will immediately understand their significance.

And not only do the books in the trilogies overlap, but the trilogies themselves occasionally do. For example, Dunstan Ramsay has a brief walk-on as a history teacher at Colbourne, the boarding school attended by Hullah and his friends. And Brocky ends up a prof at Waverley University in Salterton, the setting for Davies’s first trilogy.

Unfortunately The Cunning Man is Davies’s last novel. He had begun preliminary work on another, mostly likely the concluding volume in what has been termed the Toronto series, when he died. While it's useless to speculate on what the contents of that book may have been, it's also fun. The main question is who would have been the lead character. Perhaps Nuala Conor, Brocky's wife and Hullah's lover.

Since Murther and Cunning Man both open with a death, it's not unreasonable to suppose the final volume would have done so as well. Perhaps it would have been that of Darcy Dwyer, who died of stab wounds in Gilbraltar.

There is a character in Murther known as the Sniffer. In Cunning Man, Hullah is also a sniffer, using his nose as a diagnostic tool. Would there have been another sniffer in the third book?

The Gilmartins

Since several of Brocky's relatives pop up in Cunning Man, I made an abbreviated family tree to refresh my memory. All except for Ollwen appear in Murther. The names in bold are those who appear in this book.

The Female Line (5 generations)

Anna Vermeulen + Major Gage
--Elizabeth Gage + Justus Vanderlip
----Nelson Vanderlip
------Cynthia Vanderlip + Dan Boutelle
------Virginia Vanderlip + William McOmish
--------Caroline, Minerva & Malvina McOmish

The Old World Gilmartins (5 generations)

Thomas G.
--Wesley G. (adopted)
----Samuel G.
------Polly G. + John Jethro Jenkins
------Walter G. + Janet Jenkins
--------Elaine, Maude, Lancelot, Rhodri G.

The New World Gilmartins

Rhodri G. + Malvina McOmish
--Brochwel "Brocky" G. + Nuala Conor
----Conor "Gil" G. + Esme Barron
-----Ollwen G.