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Sunday, August 1, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Dreams': Part Real, Part Fantasy

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" by Wayne Johnston Doubleday, $24.95 -------------------------------

Imagine that John Irving wrote a novel about the life and times of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but focused less on FDR's politics and more on an unrequited love affair with a fictional female journalist - then you'd have some idea of what Canadian author Wayne Johnston is up to with his novel "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams."

Our first-person protagonist is Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland's premier after the island forsook independence for confederation with Canada in 1949. Smallwood's father is a failure, and the family lives high on a hill in St. John in "the least desirable, most scorned of all the city's neighbourhoods." Key images - simultaneously humorous and tragic - abound: "The Boot," which hangs outside Joey's uncle's successful shop and which mocks the less-prosperous Smallwoods; D.W. Prowse's massive tome, "A History of Newfoundland," which, like Smallwood, really existed, and whose huge weight is responsible, at various times, for avalanche and death and betrayal.

The childhood chapters are the best part of the novel. Joey's years at private school seem some combination of George Orwell's essay, "Such, Such Were the Joys," and the Steering School section of "The World According to Garp." At one point, Smallwood comments on the eccentric, oddly named teachers, including "a Frenchman who always introduced himself as Adolph E. Bernard, stressing the E as though there was some other Adolph Bernard that he was concerned he might be mistaken for."

Smallwood is a joy when popping the pretensions of these pompous adults, but he soon becomes one himself. Rail-thin and hawk-nosed, he adopts socialism, flees to New York and nearly starves to death. Upon his return, he collaborates with other political parties to get ahead. He becomes a moral coward, ready to knuckle under to the more powerful people he despises, always fearful of What People Think.

He is most cowardly in his relationship with Shelagh Fielding, his antagonist at private school but friend soon thereafter. It is Fielding (she never goes by her first name) who gets Smallwood a job as a reporter for the local paper. Eventually, she becomes Newfoundland's most famous columnist. A youthful bout with tuberculosis has left one leg withered, and she roams St. John's with a cane, limping and boozing, a Canadian Dorothy Parker with an ironic bon mot always on her lips.

One could say that author Johnston is quite the gentleman, for he gives Fielding the best lines in the book. Interspersed with Smallwood's story are snippets of Fielding's diary, along with chapters from her "Condensed History of Newfoundland" (her ironic answer to D.W. Prowse), and both are gorgeously written. It's as if Fielding, Johnston's creation, is a better writer than Johnston himself.

"You put your stethoscope on the soles of my feet and listened with an air of grave concentration," she writes to her recently deceased doctor-father, recalling childhood games. "You put it on my forehead and claimed that you could hear what I was thinking."

These snippets tend to be so sweet, so moving, that the reader quickly wonders whether Johnston made a mistake in focusing on Smallwood. Fielding deserves a book of her own, or at least a less cowardly counterpart in this one.

Immensely readable, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" is ultimately about Smallwood's love-hate relationship with both Newfoundland and Fielding. Newfoundland is described in fascinating, sometimes terrifying detail; Fielding is touching. It's Smallwood, Johnston's fictional creation of the real-life premier, who needs work.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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