The Navigator of New York

Publisher: Vintage Canada
Wayne Johnston’s breakthrough epic novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was published in several countries and given high praise from the critics. It earned him nominations for the highest fiction prizes in Canada and was a national bestseller. His American editor said he hadn’t found such an exciting author since he discovered Don DeLillo. Johnston, who has been writing fiction for two decades, launched his next and sixth novel across the English-speaking world to great anticipation.

The Navigator of New York is set against the background of the tumultuous rivalry between Lieutenant Peary and Dr. Cook to get to the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century. It is also the story of a young man’s quest for his origins, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the bustling streets of New York, and the remotest regions of the Arctic.

Devlin Stead’s father, an Arctic explorer, stops returning home at the end of his voyages and announces he is moving to New York, as “New York is to explorers what Paris is to artists”; eventually he is declared missing from an expedition. His mother meets an untimely death by drowning shortly after. Young Devlin, who barely remembers either of them, lives contently in the care of his affectionate aunt and indifferent uncle, until taunts from a bullying fellow schoolboy reveal dark truths underlying the bare facts he knows about his family. A rhyme circulated around St. John’s further isolates Devlin, always seen as an odd child who had inherited his parents’ madness and would likely meet a similar fate.

Devlin, who has always learned about his father through newspaper reports, now finds other people’s accounts of his parents are continually altering his view of his parents. Then strange secret letters start to arrive, exciting his imagination with the unanticipated notion that his life might contain the possibility of adventure. Nothing is what it once seemed. Suddenly a chance to take his own place in the world is offered, giving him courage and a newfound zest for discovery. “It was life as I would live it unless I went exploring that I dreaded.”

Caught up in the mystery of who his parents really were, and anxious to leave behind the image of ‘the Stead boy’, at the age of twenty Devlin sails, carrying only a doctor’s bag, to a New York that is bursting with frenzied energy and about to become the capital city of the globe; where every day inventors file for new patents and three thousand new strangers enter the city, a city that already looks ancient although taller buildings are constructed constantly. There he will become protégé to Dr. Cook, who is restlessly preparing for his next expedition, be introduced into the society that makes such ventures possible, and eventually accompany Cook on his epic race to reach the Pole before the arch-rival Peary. This trip will plunge Devlin into worldwide controversy -- and decide his fate.

Wayne Johnston has harnessed the scope, energy and inventiveness of the nineteenth century novel and encapsulated it in the haunting and eloquent voice of his hero. His descriptions of place, whether of the frozen Arctic wastes or the superabundant and teeming New York, have extraordinary physicality and conviction, recreating a time when the wide world seemed to be there for the taking. An extraordinary achievement that seamlessly weaves fact and fabrication, it continues the masterful reinvention of the historical novel Wayne Johnston began with The Colony of Unrequited Dreams.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

In 1881, Aunt Daphne said, not long after my first birthday, my father told the family that he had signed on with the Hopedale Mission, which was run by Moravians to improve the lives of Eskimos in Labrador. His plan, for the next six months, was to travel the coast of Labrador as an outport...
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1. Johnston has said that he finds it hard to read books in which there’s absolutely no humour. How does humour contribute to the character of Devlin?

2. The Navigator of New York is filled with descriptions of places; which scene or setting struck you the most powerfully, and why?


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"Read this book simply for the force, beauty and accuracy of its images.... Wayne Johnston is the most prodigiously talented and morally complex novelist this country has produced since Mordecai Richler.... I’ll follow his writing anywhere."
The Globe and Mail

"Johnston’s turn-of-the-last-century New York is moodily evocative, although [his] Arctic is even more engrossing and beautifully drawn…. This is a part of the world where even the Eskimos cry when winter returns…. ‘There was no time in this place where all meridians met,’ as Devlin rhapsodizes — a young man finally embarking on his terrifying, heady journey into life."
The New York Times Book Review

"Beautiful [and] evocative…. Johnston is an accomplished storyteller, with a gift for both description and character, which he uses masterfully here."

"A captivating narrative that delves into both the noble and the seedier aspects of the human need to discover and explore…. The polar expeditions generate considerable narrative tension…. Johnston’s ability to illuminate historical settings and situations continues to grow with each book, and this powerful effort is his best to date."
Publisher's Weekly

"Navigator is generously stuffed with crisp writing, rich characterizations, and haunting descriptions of the harsh beauty of the Arctic…. Marginally less wonderful, then, than The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1991). But all that means is that it’s merely better than about 90 percent of most contemporary fiction."
Kirkus Reviews, starred

"Readers have been wondering whether Johnston could possibly top (or even equal) his splendid fictional saga of Joey Smallwood, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The answer is a slightly qualified yes. There is the same magical blend of fact and imagination, the same compelling drive to use fiction to answer the questions left unanswered by the historical record, and the same stylistic brilliance that can turn a description of icebergs into a sensory adventure rarely achieved in the pages of a modern novel."
—Bronwyn Drainie, Quill and Quire

"This passion for exploration and being the first to reach remote, unexplored parts of the world illuminates this enthralling book…. Johnston has created a powerful novel that portrays the romance, wonderment and deprivation of Arctic exploration, while at the same time capturing the taut, emotional intensity of a lonely, misunderstood young man at the core of the story…. Johnston masterfully conjures up a cast of characters…whose tragic story has a depth and scope which propels the reader towards a fascinating conclusion."
—Karen Shewbridge, Dailies (St. John’s)

Praise for Wayne Johnston:

"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams makes Wayne Johnston one of those formidable Canadians, like Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood, that Americans simply can’t ignore."

"[A] prodigiously talented author. . . . Wayne Johnston is well on his way to becoming the most distinctive talent this country has produced since Mordecai Richler."
The Globe and Mail

"Baltimore’s Mansion [is] a masterpiece of creative non-fiction."
National Post

"The Colony of Unrequited Dreams is a classic historical novel [that] will make a permanent mark on our literature."
The Toronto Star

The New York Times Book Review

"Why I love reading Wayne Johnston: The reader goes skittering through Wayne Johnston’s novels, driven inexorably forward on the force of his characters, on the power of his wit. Unlike most recent bestselling novels that are remembered for the plane flight and then promptly forgotten, Wayne’s stories have characters who move in and take up permanent residence."
—Mary Walsh

"His books are beautifully written, among the funniest I’ve ever read, yet somehow at the same time among the most poignant and moving."
—Annie Dillard