FANS OF RECENT NEWFOUNDLAND-set novels (think Annie Proulx and Howard Norman) will recognize and perhaps warm to the picaresque assemblage of characters that populate the latest literary rendition of life on The Rock, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Eccentrics, drunks, dreamers, con men and crazies of various stripes make their appearance, which indeed seems almost mandatory, as though the Canadian Maritimes -- poor, backward, innocent, ribald, quaint -- have assumed the place in the literary imagination Appalachia once held.
To his credit, novelist Wayne Johnston keeps such exotica mostly off to the side of his sprawling story, which charts the ambitions of the lowborn Joey Smallwood to become Newfoundland's first premier. This is history wholly unfamiliar to most Americans, and as if in acknowledgment of this, Smallwood's at times plodding fictional autobiography is intercut with the sharp-tongued and hilarious Condensed History of Newfoundland, written by Smallwood's best friend and lifelong object of unrequited love, Sheilagh Fielding.
Weaving the two voices together, Johnston has succeeded in writing something of an authentic Canadian epic, which, as that oxymoronic notion suggests, ironically undercuts itself at every turn. Looking out over the "oppressively spectacular scenery" of the Newfoundland fjords at dusk, Smallwood comments, "As always, I felt obliged to say or do something commensurately profound, but could think of nothing."
THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS | By WAYNE JOHNSTON Doubleday | 562 pages | $25