THE COLONY OF UNREQUITED DREAMS

By Wayne Johnston

Doubleday. 562 pp. $24.95

What is it about Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost province, that makes it so propitious for fiction? As depicted in such fine novels as Howard Norman's "The Bird Artist" and Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News," there is its rampant beauty--seascapes, rocky promontories and pine forests, all sharpened by air so clear it seems to wake dormant powers in the eye. There are lingering extremes--brooding, overcast skies and punishing winters. There is the enveloping sea, with all its tragedy and allure. And there is provincialism (in both the political and metaphoric senses of the word), which, combined with a limping economy, prompts ambitious natives to forsake the place for better opportunities elsewhere, then look back wistfully--or, in the case of Wayne Johnston, write a long, impassioned, absorbing novel.

Unlike Norman and Proulx, Johnston was born and raised in Newfoundland (and here is as good a place as any to mention that its inhabitants pronounce that name "Newfun-LAND"). He now lives in Toronto, a vantage point from which he has imbued his new book, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," with both critical distance and insider's affection. He intersperses a first-person narrative--the fictionalized autobiography of the actual Joe Smallwood, a late-blooming politician who became the province's first premier when it joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949--with inserts redolent of "Moby-Dick": excerpts from a short, sardonic history of the province, newspaper columns, diary entries. Unabashedly, Johnston has set out to write the Great Newfoundlandian Novel.

And yet for all its emphasis on the colony's tangled relations with the mother country (England, not Canada), for all the infuriating examples of British haughtiness inflicted on masochistic colonials, this is at bottom a love story, a triangle that takes shape in the schoolyard of Bishop Feild, the elite St. John's prep school that Smallwood attends as a townie. There, despite his short stature and shabby clothes, he is taken up by Prowse, the resident golden boy--handsome, athletic, rich, well connected (his grandfather's "History of Newfoundland" is the canonic chronicle). Although Smallwood professes to be mystified by this patronage, the reader will not fail to recognize the boy's winsome quality: his sharp, witty tongue.

His only verbal rival is Sheilagh Fielding, a student at the adjacent girls' school--a tall girl who uses a cane to compensate for her bad leg. She frequently hobbles over to the fence separating the two institutions to swap repartee with the boys, who address her by her surname only. When first seen, she appears to be one of those sexless girls whom boys would rather slang with than date; the truth, which Johnston leads the reader to via a masterly series of revelations, is very different. In any case, she and Smallwood take particular pleasure in skewering each other. But when he launches a putdown that plays on the fact that her mother left the family for another man, Fielding is unable to hide her distress.

Shortly afterward, disaster overtakes Smallwood. The headmaster of the school receives an anonymous letter that indicts his administration. Circumstances point to Smallwood as its author, although the reader knows he is innocent. Fielding confesses to the deed and is expelled from her school, but Smallwood's reprieve doesn't last long. The headmaster, who knows he's been the frequent target of Smallwood's barbs just the same, contrives another way to force the boy out. Smallwood never gets over the obloquy of being expelled, and the incident of the anonymous letter--not to mention Fielding herself--continues to vex him throughout his life.

Smallwood's rise to power is slow and roundabout. Early in his career, he dramatizes his job as a union organizer by walking across Newfoundland. Later he becomes a journalist, first in print, then on radio, where he holds forth as the Barrelman, retelling local stories so as to make Newfoundlanders feel good about themselves. His media celebrity enables him to espouse the cause of the poor and downtrodden more effectively than he ever could as an organizer. He advocates confederation because already, in the late '40s, Canada is becoming a welfare state--and also because the local establishment opposes it so vigorously. On the strength of a referendum, Newfoundland finds itself joined with Canada, and Smallwood finds himself its leader.

Johnston has fashioned his novel as a mosaic: While Smallwood is reminiscing, Fielding is putting her sassy stamp on the provincial backstory--she is a journalist, too, and those interlarded historical vignettes and newspaper columns and diary entries are mostly her work. As the book goes on, she--a wholly imaginary character--all but ousts Smallwood as its dominant figure, in part because Johnston has skimped a bit on his portrait of the older Smallwood. As a boy, he is vivid and complex, but as a grown-up politician he is rather a blank--a family man whose wife and children are kept offstage, a premier whose only traits seem to be power-hunger and a susceptibility to confidence men who arrive with grandiose schemes to develop the province but then merely siphon up government money and steal off in the dead of night. Perhaps the ample record of Smallwood's public career had a stifling effect on the novelist's imagination.

But this flaw hardly detracts from the force of Johnston's bravura storytelling or the keenness of his observation. Smallwood's father--to take just one of many minor characters who leave an indelible impression--comes across as both a one-of-a-kind fool and the quintessential self-pitying alcoholic. "Truthfully," Johnston writes, "the house did not seem right when he was sober, nor did he know what to do with himself, but would wander around as though in imitation of sobriety, as if not entirely sure what it was that sober people did."

And though this is mostly an urban novel, the periodic forays into nature are memorable, as when a crew of shipwrecked sailors is discovered frozen to death on their feet atop the offshore ice. They ended up that way because, "too tired to walk but still standing, they had been buried in snow that had blown away when the storm let up, by which time they were rooted in the ice that lay like pedestals about their feet."

But it's Fielding to whom the story keeps reverting. Like Smallwood's father, she drinks to excess, but she is keenly aware of what it is that sober people do. In her most savage columns, she seems to float so far above human follies as to be almost otherworldly, but in her sensitivity to the pain of her own mistakes she is utterly grounded in earthly reality. Fielding is a great creation, and it was wise of Wayne Johnston to let her virtually make off with "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams."