Jonathan Butler, Return of the Native
Ivison, Douglas, Newfoundland and Labrador Studies
Jonathan Butler, Return of the Native, St. John's, Breakwater, 2007, ISBN 978-1-55081-230-5.
OVER THE PAST DECADE OR SO, St. John's has become one of Canadian literature's most compelling urban settings. Writers such as Michael Winter, Paul Bowdring, Lisa Moore, and others have provided detailed portraits of contemporary St. John's, and in the process have challenged and complicated stereotypical and nostalgic images of a Newfoundland defined by outports and the fishery, a society locked in the past. Jonathan Butler's Return of the Native is in the tradition of recent Newfoundland fiction, and is firmly rooted in the streets and alleys of St. John's. An entertaining, often funny, but flawed first novel, Return of the Native provides an engaging portrait of downtown St. John's, mixed with thoughtful meditations on identity and belonging and the state of contemporary Newfoundland. Yet, as a novel it is ultimately underdeveloped and aimless.
As is the case with many first novels, it is difficult not to see the author in the protagonist, who embodies many of the strengths and weaknesses of the novel. Butler, a native of St. John's, received a PhD in English from the University of Toronto and is currently a professor of English at a Taiwanese university. The protagonist, Udo Nomi, is also "a purebred Newfoundlander through and through"(9). He is an academic who went to the mainland for his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto and stayed at U of T as a professor. Disenchanted and alienated, he, however, has given up his academic career, left behind his big-city life in Toronto, and returned to St. John's. At times, Udo comes across as more of a mouthpiece for Butler's thoughts on academia, identity, and place than as a fully realized character.
He may be a purebred Newfoundlander through and through, but, as his name suggests, Udo is not a typical Newfoundlander, as his father was an African-American originally from the southern United States. The impact of race on Udo's identity is a central focus of the novel, and through the introduction of an Afro-Newfoundlander protagonist like Udo, Return of the Native not only challenges assumptions about the homogeneity of Newfoundland culture, but enables a more complex and nuanced, if only partially realized, discussion of Newfoundland identity.
Udo left Newfoundland for graduate studies in Toronto, largely to "get in touch with his African-American roots," in part by studying with a leading black theorist. In Toronto, Udo associates with the local black community, but rather than finding a home within it, he feels alienated from it and homesick for Newfoundland. His experience in Toronto confirms for him that identity is defined not by skin colour but by place. So, as the novel begins, he has returned home to St. John's to reclaim his Newfoundland identity and reconnect with a place that he can comfortably call home.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around Udo's drinking exploits with Sid Fizzard, a well-known poet and Newfoundland separatist. Together, they spend much of their time in bars on George Street, chatting up women, and plotting Newfoundland's independence. …