Dunstan Ramsay, setting down his memoirs in 1970 at the age of seventy-two, is the narrator of Fifth Business (Penguin, 266 pp., $1.95), the first volume of Canadian novelist and playwright Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, and it is a book no less marvelous than anything in Robert Houdin’s bag of tricks. Fast moving, sparked by wicked humor, at times saddening and bitter, the novel is based in the idea that whole lives are founded in small, seemingly trivial childhood incidents–such as the toss of a snowball.
All of Fifth Business–and to a great degree the other volumes, The Manticore and World of Wonders, also available in Penguins–goes hack to a snowball thrown in 1908 in the little Ontario village of Deptford: a snowball, it turns out, that was thrown in a great, continuous sixty-year arc. Dunstan Ramsay, 10, is dodging missiles thrown by his lifelong friend and rival Boy Staunton; as Dunstan ducks in front of Mary Dempster, passing wife of the local Baptist minister, Staunton’s last shot, with a rock in it, hits her in the head. Because of the blow, Mary Dempster gives birth that night, eighty days short of term, to her son Paul, and begins a slow, quiet descent into insanity.
Dunstan is the only one who knows what happened and why, but he keeps his counsel: boys don’t tell. Still, feeling guilty–and feeling as well a desire to punish Staunton, or to see him take the consequences of his act–Dunstan befriends Mary Dempster, helping her with the household chores she can no longer comprehend, and a few years later he befriends Paul. Yet as a boy in a village governed by convention, religion, and gossip, he can protect neither person. After amusing Paul with readings from a child’s book on the lives of the saints, and with those few coin and card tricks he has been able to learn from a magic book, Dunstan’s contact with Mary and Paul is broken off by Amasa Dempster, the Baptist preacher, who is horrified by what he sees as Papism and profligacy. Worse is to come: Dunstan’s boyhood effectively ends when he and others discover Mary Dempster copulating in a ditch with a grateful tramp; to the men and women of Deptford, this seems an idiot’s perversion of Christian charity.
For Dunstan, who is most alive when he is thinking, and thus, in the face of these events, has far more to think about than he can translate into action, the solution is to get out: he joins the Canadian army and spends the First World War at the front. The standard of writing here, which is extraordinary, is maintained throughout the book: “I shall say little about the war,” Dunstan’s memoirs read, “because though I was in it from early 1915 until late 1917 I never found out much about it until later… I was in the infantry, and most of the time I did not know where I was or what I was doing except that I was obeying orders and trying not to be killed in any of the variety of horrible ways open to me.” After an engagement that earns him a Victoria Cross, Dunstan returns to Deptford as a hero, though minus a leg. He finds his parents, and Amasa Dempster, dead Of an influenza epidemic; Paul, he learns, disappeared after a circus passed through town. Mary Dempster too has disappeared, but he tracks her down in Toronto, where she is under the care of the aunt who raised her. Thus, all seems settled, or as settled as such things can ever be. But the snowball is still arcing.
He sets out to live his life, teaching history at a boys’ academy and, his early love for the wondrous deflected from the practice of magic, embarks on a long, scholarly study of sainthood and myth. Boy Staunton, with whom Dunstan has remained in close contact, becomes a great tycoon with the self-knowledge of a frog. After Mary Dempster’s aunt dies, Dunstan becomes her guardian. With little money, he commits her to a public asylum, visiting her regularly; there is no one else who cares to, or who in fact remembers her at all.
Over the years, Dunstan and Staunton move through the world; they have, in their different spheres, their various adventures. But the final verdict on their lives still rests with Mary Dempster and the stone in the snowball: an object that Dunstan has kept–as a paperweight!–all across the decades. Dunstan lives off this secret. Staunton has forgotten it. To Dunstan, that makes them both hollow: “As we neared our sixties the cloaks we had wrapped around our essential selves were wearing thin.”
One has traveled a long way with Dunstan Ramsay by this time; long enough to understand that the snowball has yet to find its mark. Dunstan is no avenger, but he is much more than a witness. Finally, he points out the target, even as many years before he exposed it, and the arc completes its circle. Dunstan tells the story of Mary Dempster to Staunton and to Paul Dempster, who has reappeared, and hours later Boy Staunton is found floating in the Toronto harbor, the stone in his mouth.
Rolling Stone, December 1, 1977