Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is another of those books — like Alice McDermott’s Someone — that I can’t help admiring for its literary virtuosity, yet that left me with some reservations. As with Someone and other such novels, I’m left to struggle with whether my reservations have more to do with Winter’s writing or with me as a reader. Certainly the book is very compelling at times; Winter is a master of the small detail, the casual phrase that reveals more than pages of exposition could do. There’s a certain hapless charm to his main character, Henry Hayward, a man in his thirties who seems to be just drifting through his life until an incident in Afghanistan (where Henry is working as a civilian contractor with the Canadian military) costs a friend his life. Henry blames himself (not without some cause) for the death, and begins a slow process of trying to build a life for himself back in Newfoundland that is intentional rather than accidental. Though there were times when the story moved very slowly, that’s not something I mind if it’s well told, and there is a wealth of beautiful detail here.
That said, there were also times when the author’s literary flourishes detracted from the story rather than adding to it, particularly with the use of dialogue that doesn’t sound as if it was ever spoken by any real person, much less the character in whose mouth it’s placed. Henry, as a main character, can be hard to get a handle on, though the small Southern Shore community around him is populated by vividly realized minor characters. I also didn’t understand some of Winter’s choices with point of view — the story sticks almost exclusively to a third-person-limited narration from Henry’s point of view, yet there were a couple of occasions when we were dropped into another character’s perspective for a chapter and then just as quickly taken back out again, for no reason I could discern.
I think the best way I could characterize my experience of reading this book is “uneven” — I certainly enjoyed it greatly at times, and felt distant from the story and characters at other times — a distance that may be intentional, but that tempered my enjoyment of this obviously well-written book.