Wayne Grady

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Characters from Matt Cohen's fictional town of Salem, Ontario, began appearing ten years ago in the short story "Country Music," which was included in Cohen's 1972 collection, Columbus and the Fat Lady. "Country Music" builds to the death of Pat Frank, and so in a chronological sense follows the four subsequent novels in the quartet that began with The Disinherited (1974), and continued through The Colours of War (1977), and The Sweet Second Summer of Kitty Malone (1978). The cyclical nature of Cohen's work over the past decade now seems complete: in a brief author's note to his new novel, Cohen … notes that "with Flowers of Darkness the impulse that started me writing The Disinherited has come full circle."

It has been an erratic circle, with characters from other novels popping in and out of scenes almost at random, mentioned briefly in one novel and developed into central figures in another. But Cohen's progress as a writer from the heady, experimental days of … (Korsoniloff, 1969) to the traditional family chronicle of the Salem cycle has been steady and purposeful. He has his finger on a living pulse in rural Ontario, and sees no need to pump new or artificial blood into old veins. If he sometimes picks up threads and characters and leaves them undeveloped, there is no doubt that his themes are important and his inspiration genuine. He has confidently moved into territory familiar from the early work of Alice Munro—the claustrophobic Ontario Protestant ethic….

In Flowers of Darkness, Pat Frank is mentioned as a garage mechanic, and Jacob Beam, father of Theodore Beam from The Colours of War, has a walk-on part. They both appear as figurines in a symbolic clay mural, but the main characters [in Flowers of Darkness] are entirely new. (p. 50)

[There is] Finch representing evil and Annabelle at least on the side of good (with a few tarnished traces of innocence) [thereby establishing] the opposing forces of Flowers of Darkness….

The town of Salem itself is constructed as a model of the soul's polarity…. Not for nothing is Salem, Ontario, named after Salem, Massachusetts, scene of the infamous witch trials of 1692. The puritan ethic may be dying out in New England, but it's alive and flourishing in smalltown Ontario.

And it does seem at times that an abstract and impersonal fate moves the stock characters in Cohen's morality play. Finch, for example, is particularly one-dimensional…. What motivates him in his relentless dominion over women is nothing more complicated than uncontrollable lust: that he is a minister of the church is not enough to provide him with a satisfactorily dual nature…. There is no remorse, no self-discovery, hence no tragedy in his death. "The idea that [Annabelle's] relationship with Finch was not actually a drama that would need to be resolved, but was only a series of encounters," occurs to Annabelle early on, and even encourages her. The idea occurs to the reader, too, but has the opposite effect. (pp. 50-1)

Wayne Grady, "Cohen's Chronicle" (copyright © 1981 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 96, No. 3, March, 1981, pp. 50-1.

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