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Sunday, June 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Austere memoir evokes Newfoundland landscape

Special to the Seattle Times

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"Baltimore's Mansion"

by Wayne Johnston

Doubleday, $25

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It's a literary tradition of sorts for an author to flee his birthplace only to return to it again and again in his prose. Think James Joyce and Dublin, Philip Roth and Newark.

Add Canadian author Wayne Johnston to the list. Near the end of his memoir, "Baltimore's Mansion," he tells us that "I can only write about this place when I regard it from a distance. That my writing feeds off a homesickness that I need and that I hope is benign and will never go away."

"This place," as fans of his novel "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" have probably guessed, is Newfoundland. Indeed, "Mansion" is as much a memoir of the political and physical landscape of Newfoundland as it is of the Johnston family. I can think of no memoir that makes so little use of the first-person pronoun.

Johnston was born on the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland, which, in his youth, he associated with "the vale of Avilion," where the dying King Arthur sailed to heal himself of his "grievous wound." Newfoundland's grievous wound - according to Johnston - was a 1948 referendum in which Newfoundlanders forsook independence to become a province of Canada. It's a referendum that Johnston's father, appropriately named Arthur, never got over. "We used to be a country," he tells his son, "but we're not one anymore."

A vague mystery propels the memoir: What awful event came between Johnston's father, a man who wound up working, ironically, for the federal Fisheries of Canada, and his father, a blacksmith who died in his forge 67 days before confederation?

It's not much of a propeller. One also gets the feeling that a writer's memoir should be more fun than this. Johnston writes well, but "Baltimore's Mansion" is as austere as the Newfoundland coast.

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Author appearance

Wayne Johnston reads from "Baltimore's Mansion" at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Elliott Bay Books (206-624-6600; free)

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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