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Guy Vanderhaeghe's latest novel might remind you of Trump

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August Into Winter

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Guy Vanderhaeghe

McClelland & Stewart

By the time he had reached the final lap of his powerful new novel, August Into Winter, Guy Vanderhaeghe figured he knew everything there was to know about the predatory monster who stalks its 472 pages.

But then his editor at McClelland & Stewart told him this nightmare creation reminded her of Donald Trump. “And I had to agree,” Vanderhaeghe says now.

Among other things, this best-selling writer’s first novel in a decade is an explosive thriller set in a bleak time in history, beginning in the dying days of peace before the outbreak of war in 1939 and ending weeks later on Remembrance Day with an almost biblical confrontation in the midst of a devastating Saskatchewan blizzard. This is a novel in which nature’s elements run rampant at both beginning and end.

There’s also a love story here as well as meditations on war, resilience and the frailty of truth in a society fuelled by lies. “But I always wanted the book to have momentum because I was rapidly discovering that this would be the longest novel I’d ever written,” Vanderhaeghe concedes with a laugh.

This momentum would come from the book’s riveting account of the hunt for a vicious young sociopath named Ernie Sickert, whose murder of an RCMP officer in a storm-drenched rural Saskatchewan unleashes a horrific rampage of violence. Ernie is a narcissistic, self-absorbed fantasist, raging against a system that always misunderstands him and does him wrong, and obsessed with the impressionable 12-year-old child who is enshrined in his mind as the love of his life. In the novel, Ernie sometimes seems like a grotesque cosmic joke cruelly imposed on a society struggling to come out a depression even as it must face up to the reality of another war.

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“I actually believe that evil is a presence in the world,” Vanderhaeghe says bluntly. “And often there’s something buffoonish about really horrible, dangerous people. There can be something laughable and almost pathetic about them. So we have those elements in Ernie — but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous, In some ways his narcissism and his vanity and his fantasies make him terribly dangerous — so he is sort of Trump-like.”

Vanderhaeghe, now 70, has won three Governor General’s Awards by treading his own distinctive fictional path. “To a certain degree, I have a history of using forms that are considered ‘genre’ and then twisting them a little bit,” he says from his Saskatoon home. “It might seem pretentious of me to say this, but I think there’s something about genre fiction that I think literary fiction sometimes ignores at its peril — and that is a sense of forward movement”

But this would also provide the foundation for examination of other concerns. “At least in my mind, one can still pose questions about how you negotiate all sorts of things — political questions, political change, how an individual acts in larger social and historical circumstances.”

The novel also reminds us of the fragile veneer of civilization — beginning and ending with ferocious climatic assaults that rupture a world whose modern safeguards we may foolishly take for granted. Vanderhaeghe has dedicated the book to his parents, “who weathered fifteen years of drought, depression and war without surrendering to despair or losing sight of what really matters.”

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Such themes figure into the effect that Ernie Sickert’s deadly swath has on three principal characters. Vidalia Taggart is a disgraced teacher from Winnipeg seeking to rebuild her life in an alien rural culture, her only solace the journals of a lover who died fighting for the left in the Spanish Civil War. Oliver and Jack Dill are two brothers, both carrying emotional scars from the First World War, who lead a manhunt in the midst of a world that has been essentially shut down because of vicious weather conditions.

The novel’s seed was planted 60 years ago when 10-year-old Guy and his mother visited the RCMP Museum in Regina. “I remember seeing this grisly exhibit — an RCMP Stetson with a big dent in it and a hammer beside it.” These objects were mementoes of the murder of an RCMP officer in Vanderhaeghe’s hometown around the outbreak of war. Back then, there was only one RCMP officer serving the community “so when she was killed, according to my father, a posse of First World War veterans was formed to go after the murderer.”

Vanderhaeghe, whose career was spectacularly launched with the publication of Man Descending in 1982, remained haunted for decades by this story of First World War veterans in pursuit of a killer. But it wasn’t until he was in his 60s that he decided to use it as the inspiration for a novel.

“I used to say to my creative writing students — if you have an idea that’s nagging you, maybe it wants to be written. So I guess that was my impetus for starting this book (but) things can percolate for a very long time”

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So finally he found himself tapping into the real past with August Into Winter. But unlike that troubled real-life killer from history, Ernie Sickert is far more frightening. As for Donald Trump — well, Vanderhaeghe realizes now he was dealing with “a sort of Trump obsession” when working on the last stages of the novel.

At the time he didn’t think he was consciously modelling Ernie on Trump — “but now that it has been pointed out to me, he is at least Trump-like. Ernie is self-pitying. Anything that happens to him is somebody else’s fault, and he sort of projects his fantasies the way Trump does — simply by thinking that if something is true to him, that really makes it true — so yeah, there are very strong similarities.”

This veteran author likes being able to surprise himself when he begins a new story.

“I never want things to be too solid because if they’re mapped out, I lose what I call the adventure of writing,” he explains. “I’m less prone to happy accidents.”

Still, he can be ruthless if he thinks he has made a false start. He can be 250 pages into a book only to find himself so unhappy with how it’s going that he starts again. “Writing for me in some ways is always learning to write again,” he says simply. “That’s because every book I write demands something different.”

— Jamie Portman

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