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The rise and fall of a Halifax architect

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The Art of Being Lewis by Daniel Goodwin (Cormorant Books)

The cover of Daniel Goodwin’s new novel, The Art of Being Lewis, is an understated collage in greys and blacks suggestive of the downtown towers that dominate Toronto and Manhattan.

But The Art of Being Lewis is a novel of Canada’s smaller cities, Halifax in its first chapters, then the lesser-known Saint John and Fredericton in New Brunswick.  The former of these was an important early eastern port; while the latter, the provincial capital, was last at the centre of Canadian history when it welcomed United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution.

Goodwin’s Lewis is Lewis Morton, the young partner in a high-flying Halifax architectural firm, who is introduced to the reader at a moment of impressive professional accomplishment. The rest of the novel traces the many ways that his personal and professional life goes off the rails, a descent that Goodwin explores with sensitivity and dark humour.

Though he has established himself in Atlantic Canada, Lewis’ identity is rooted in Montreal, where he grew up in the shadow of his father, a hard-driving lawyer prone to Alan Arkin-isms, and a troubled, artistically talented mother.

The Montreal sections of the book provide backstory to Lewis’ life on tony Rothesay Road outside Saint John.   

Lewis’ mother’s artistic oeuvre resonates throughout the book. A painter who returned again and again to the subject of herself naked, these images are an inescapable part of Lewis’ imaginative world.

His father appears, often for comic relief, trailing his own Montreal youth and talking like the big city type his son admires but cannot quite emulate.

Goodwin’s novel provides a catalogue of contrasting male types – men of varied ages and a certain status. Lewis, with characteristic self-doubt, routinely muses about how a professional must present himself to fulfil the expectations of colleagues and clients.

The novel’s cast of characters is sketched with care, down to the cut of their suit, the confidence expressed in their stance, the set of their expression in an awkward social setting. In its attention to detail The Art of Being Lewis is a contemporary version of the novel of manners by Jane Austen or George Eliot.  Goodwin shifts the focus from a female central figure toward male customs, character and behaviour.

In a climactic scene set in Fredericton’s Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the male pecking order is enacted as a star architect makes his appearance among his lesser Canadian peers: “The newcomer looks around slowly, benevolently, bestowing his gaze on each group of people, if not individuals, with only the slightest trace of amusement in his large bright eyes, and he waves.  It is not quite a royal wave. There is an element of warmth and kindness in it, although his gaze is all restrained sharpness, like a sword being used to grant a knighthood.  Then he turns away and everyone is politely dismissed.”

Lewis can only view such outward serenity in others with amazement.  He is a worrier. He worries about his children, about his health, about his professional status and his own place among the heavy hitters he meets at the office and in social settings. These tendencies are heightened by the threat of losing his partnership, and by an even more unsettling set of events that set him on a path toward full-scale public humiliation. Goodwin’s novel of manners is very much an artifact of the  Internet Age, a time when, to quote another Montreal-based writer, “your private life will suddenly explode.”

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Goodwin’s prose is plainspoken, with hardly a word wasted.  He hovers so close to Lewis’s troubled mind that we cannot help feeling he is someone we recognize.  Even if the New Brunswick port city where he lives is terra incognita, The Art of Being Lewis brings it into focus.

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