Fifth Business holds a special place in my heart, not just because the protagonist went to the same school my father did in Toronto, or because it was one of the only books assigned to me in school that I would’ve read of my own volition (as opposed to East of Eden, Paradise Lost, the Torah, etc.), but it was a revelation when I first read it at 15, and it’s been a rewarding experience the several times I’ve reread it since then.
Robertson Davies was a Canadian writer who writes books that take place largely in Canada, which I mention because those are the only reasons I can think of he isn’t more acclaimed in this country. His stories have a fair amount of fantasy in them, from magicians to Jungian imagery, but the language is never obnoxious or overt; he can get as weird as Tom Robbins in theme, but, thankfully, not in language or style.
Fifth Business is the first book of the Deptford trilogy (along with The Manticore and World of Wonders), named for the fictional Ontario town where the story begins. The book is framed as a letter written by Dunstan Ramsay to the headmaster of Colborne College, from which he is retiring, in which Ramsay aims to explain his lifelong search for a specific saint and his struggle to come to terms with a terrible misdeed from his childhood.
It goes in many bizarre, wonderful directions, but what makes it such an exceptional book, especially from the perspective of a teenager, is that it celebrates the notion that a protagonist can be important without necessarily being loved or even respected. That’s how Ramsay comes to see himself after it’s explained to him what fifth business means-- it’s the character in theater, usually opera, who is the odd man out because he doesn’t have a love interest or rival, but he’s the one who carries the secret to the plot, and without him the story can’t move forward.
Ramsay plays a key role in other people’s lives, so even if his life is academic and a little lonely, it’s of value, which is sentiment that spoke to this sullen, narcissistic teen way more than anything in Catcher In The Rye. That the protagonist finds that truth before having sex with the world’s ugliest woman, who happens to manage a magician whose life Ramsay feels responsible for ruining, makes the profundity more enjoyable than depressing. After all, coming to terms with the value in a lonely and seemingly-meaningless life, even if it does have value, still isn’t a party.
The trilogy’s later books delve even further into Jungian imagery and archetypes, and in The Manticore especially, the storytelling suffers a bit, but Fifth Business is still a wonderful introduction to Davies’ work, and one of my favorites, from Canada or anywhere else.