17 February 2020

A Stranger Comes to Town; an Author Vanishes

Forever 33
Jacques Byfield
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982
175 pages

The Alberta town of Breery exists nowhere outside Forever 33, but should be familiar to readers of Canadian fiction. Its five hundred inhabitants – those featured in the novel, anyway – will be equally familiar; there's the voluptuous waitress (she's up for anything), the tempted hardware store owner (his wife wants to start a family), the brooding farmer (he beats his kids), the widowed schoolteacher (with a heart of gold), and the troubled preacher (who is questioning his faith).

As might be expected from its Alberta setting, the novel takes place during the Great Depression.

The unfamiliar comes in the form of a one-legged gravedigger named John Evans. I'm betting that the novel's first sentence – "No one knew where he had come from, and no one went out of his way to find out." – inspired the copy on the back of the dust jacket:

The front flap looks to build upon the aura of mystery: "He was a stranger who seemed to know things people didn't know about themselves." The words "haunting" and "mesmerizing" feature, followed by this: "none is left untouched by the watchful presence of the gravedigger."

Memories of Evans, like this one, fill the earliest pages:
Pastor Clough remarked more than once that his gravedigger showed little concern for the rituals of pre-burial; he even went so far as to doubt the man's confederacy with Christianity. John Evans was never seen inside the church. He remained for the most part a man unnoticed, passing his days digging deep holes and then refilling them upon the heads the town's deceased. Occasionally he would disappear; on those occasions he would be employed at other towns in the vicinity digging for their burials. No one had to tell him where or when his particular services were required. He just knew. The man had a nose for death. He could sniff its adolescent scent on the breeze and be gone in its direction before the bereaved could gather.
All hints at the supernatural, bringing to mind Ray Bradbury's G.M. Dark (Something Wicked This Way Comes) and Stephen King's Leland Gaunt (Needful Things), mysterious outsiders who wreak havoc on small town America. I expected gravedigger Evans to be their Canadian cousin.

I was wrong.

Evans is a mysterious figure only in that the author doesn't share as much about him as he does Breery's townsfolk. His powers rest on observation, and are no more remarkable than those of local gossip Vera Roden:
The woman had an uncanny knack. If she caught only so much as one word of private conversation, then the cat was out of the bag.
As the novel progressed, I became less interested those living in Breery than I did the town as a whole. How did was it, I wondered, that a town of five hundred could support a hardware store and diner? How was it that everyone lived in comfort, despite the Great Depression? More than anything, I wondered how Breery was able to afford a full-time gravedigger.

Then there was Byfield's style, which swings wildly. Compare the passages quoted above with this, in which young Peter Carlson, son of the brutal farmer, chases after Evans:
The boy's breath billowed with the exertion of his haste. It was in his heart to consummate their earliest vague discussion. Since that first talk he'd been savouring with anticipation what he hoped the digger might tell him next. He hurried and was quickly upon the object of his haste.
Forever 33 was declared a finalist in the $50,000 Seal Books First Novel Award.

No winner was awarded.

How is that fair?

For all its flaws, Forever 33 is a better debut novel than Mordecai Richler's The Acrobats, Daniel Richler's Kicking Tomorrow, and Emma Richler's Feed My Dear Dogs. I admired Byfield's imagination and looked forward to a more mature sophomoric work... only to discover that his bibliography begins and ends with Forever 33.

The publicity sheet inserted in my copy informs that he author is at work on a new novel.

It's been thirty-eight years.

About the title: In reminiscing, the gravedigger recites lines from a song he remembers from the Great War: "The soldier knows that he will die and buried deep he'll be. The digger may live to be ninety-nine, but he'll stay thirty-three."

I've found no evidence that these lines exist outside the pages of this novel.

Fun fact: According to the Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, Jacques Byfield was born in 1948, which would have made him either 33 or 34 at time of publication.

Object and Access: A slim volume bound in brown boards. The jacket design is credited to Fernley Hesse Ltd. My copy is a first edition. I see no sign of another.

I can find all of two copies available for sale online, neither of which is offered by a Canadian bookseller. How is that possible?

The cheaper of the two is priced at £15. I can't say it's worth the price. I can't say it isn't.

Held by Library and Archives Canada, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and twelve of our academic libraries. Of our public libraries, only that serving Toronto comes through. Not only that, it offers this photograph of the young author on its website.

Related post:


  1. A "town" with five hundred inhabitants (in England it'd barely be a village) could - with a life expectancy of a moderate sixty years - need a grave digger less than ten times a year. Even assuming most of the inhabitants are elderly, twenty to thirty deaths a year would be a noticeably high rate. Double the number to allow for the rural areas around, and you're still talking about less than one interment a week. The only way John Evans could pass "his days digging deep holes and then refilling them upon the heads the town's deceased" is if his disability drastically affected his ability to dig.
    The mystery is: why does Pastor Clough employ a man so obviously unsuited to his job?

    1. You ask a good question, Roger. The answer provided by the novel is that Evans appeared in town just after the death of the previous gravedigger. There was, it seems, a job to be filled (no pun intended). Of course this adds to my observation about the Great Depression. Seems awfully easy to get a job. I guess no two-legged men wanted it.