Matt Cohen Eric Thompson - Essay

Eric Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In The Disinherited, Cohen] expands his theme imaginatively, both in spirit and in time: his new novel is an ambitious attempt to trace the disintegration of Ontario's myth of idyllic rural life, over a span of four generations.

Cohen's attitude to the decline of the Thomas partriarchy—a family whose members have farmed the rocky soil on the outskirts of Kingston for more than a century—is elegiac of their failure to survive quarrels and change. All the Thomas men have visions of their doom….

The oppressive nature of Cohen's theme is conveyed in realistic narrative, focussed around the consciousness of Richard Thomas. Confined to a hospital bed and compelled to listen to the banalities of attendants and family, his mind roams backward and forward over his past, drawing into perspective the meaning of his ancestry. Cohen's method is to present a collage of experiences which gradually coheres into a powerful vision of anticipated damnation. Moreover, he buttresses the impact of Richard's foreboding by paralleling his experiences with those of his alienated son, Erik, whose return to his father's deathbed from the city provokes latent hostility in the family.

The author, who lives on a farm near Kingston, knows his subject well. His novel is an intimate portrayal of despairing men and women living in a spent, grey landscape, often drunk on home-brewed wine, hungry for sex, and seldom knowing love. The chief flaw in the story is a rather uninteresting middle section, but the last third of the book is steadily gripping. Unforgettable, especially, are scenes involving Erik's encounter with fat, polluting tourists, and his midnight vigil with a pregnant girl as he reads from his only heirloom (the diary of "the poet," a half-crazed relative of the Thomases) and dreams of a rebelling landscape and "toppling buildings."

Eric Thompson, "The Disintegrated Idyll," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LIV, No. 649, March, 1975, p. 39.