Novelist Ron Norman used to live in Castlegar.
For a number of years, he worked as the editor of the Castlegar News in the Burt Campbell publisher days. Then he moved on, writing a novel that never saw the light of day, and then becoming one of the top civil servants in the province. Recently, he promoted his newly published novel at the Castlegar Library.
Norman served for a number of years as the Deputy Minister and Head of Communications in the B.C. government, and in that position, he had the opportunity to observe “political” human nature in all its idiosyncrasies. His novel, Slouching towards Innocence, does a fine job of both examining and exposing the behaviour of those chosen to lead us. It does the same for those hired as aides to help the elected officials and clean up their messes.
Ostensibly, this novel is the story of Malcolm Bidwell who gets a top position in the Premier’s office through a mistake. When that is discovered and discussed in a caustic interchange in the Chief of Staff’s office, Malcolm is not dismissed because the Premier intercedes. Much earlier, Malcolm was in a key spot to help the Premier extricate himself from a compromising situation, and so he is rewarded.
Indeed, as Norman shows, things in government happen because of the pressure to cover up delicate situations and obvious blunders. In some ways, the novel is a humorous sketch of how dysfunctional and incompetent so many Ministers and their assistants are. We laugh at their shenanigans, mostly because incidents they find so damaging are inconsequential (and sometimes unbelievable) to us out here in the real world.
Norman shows us that everything in government at the top level is image-based. Malcolm moves from a position of dealing with events properly and truthfully to finding ways to salvage the image of government officials and the Premier, using subterfuge as necessary.
When Malcolm gets more immersed in government, his behaviour deteriorates dramatically. As he becomes more powerful, he begins an ill-advised sexual affair, loses his loving partner, and loses the friendship of his best buddy. In some ways, he is slouching away from his innocence rather than toward it.
The strangest scene Malcolm has to deal with is the case of the crow the Premier killed behind the legislature after the crow falls and injures the Premier. The incident is caught on camera and ends up on YouTube. Such is politics that an incident like this becomes a major rallying point for a lot of groups including the opposition.
The Premier’s cabinet and caucus turn on him so that he eventually resigns. In any other circumstance, this incident would be a minor problem, but it becomes an event of gigantic proportions because the Premier is involved. Though the incident seems a bit far-fetched, Norman gets the tone and the follow-up by everyone in government and the media exactly right.
If Norman was not such a good writer, this novel would probably not have worked. That’s because so much of inner-government is boring, and Norman has to liven it up by having cabinet ministers blundering and the Premier always doing something that needs attention and repair.
At points, their behaviour is ludicrous and the incidents beyond bizarre. How the Premier’s staff looks after things are both instructive and hilarious.
A simple problem takes several days to sort out, and a minor gaffe has all of them swearing and coming up with possible solutions. And as Norman’s novel illustrates, it’s all done to make the Premier and the government look rosy — when they’re not.