Over the course of 20 years, four novels, and several collections of short stories, Howard Norman has produced an odd and excellent body of work. He has been duly critically acclaimed, and his first two novels, "The Northern Lights" (1987) and "The Bird Artist" (1994), were finalists for the National Book Award.
He has, however, never been especially popular. There are qualities that are often celebrated in contemporary literature — an antic edge, a teeming cast of characters, the ability to conjure "literary pyrotechnics." Mr. Norman's novels eschew these trends. He writes about weirdos in weird places.
Though American, Mr. Norman mostly sets his fiction in empty corners of Canada: remote coastal villages, obscure museums, struggling hotels. His characters live in isolation compared to most people. Their social circles are necessarily small, determined by proximity rather than rapport. They are interested in birds, photography, and difficult women. They do what is expected of them, with the occasional severe lapse. In "The Museum Guard," (1998) DeFoe Russet steals a painting he is meant to guard. In "The Bird Artist," Fabian Vas takes a break from drawing swallows and warblers to murder the lighthouse keeper.
Mr. Norman's fifth novel, "Devotion" (Houghton Mifflin, 208 pages, $24), deals with a slightly more normal person. Even his name, David Kozol, is unremarkable. David is the interim caretaker of a large estate in Nova Scotia. The full-time caretaker is his father-in-law, William Field, but William is recovering from being hit by a cab during the course of a fistfight with David. The men came to blows after William spotted another woman in David's hotel room just days after David's wedding to William's daughter, Maggie. Eleven months have elapsed since the fight. David takes care of William, who is still feeble, along with the estate's large population of swans.
David and Maggie have been, for the most part, estranged. He hears about his wife through her father, who communicates in aggressive notes. "Out to the mailbox and back is seldom a problem now," William writes in one. "Not too long, I'll be able to knock your lights out. Looking forward to the day."
The situation looks grim for David, who is responsible but not exactly guilty. For months, David works out his frustration by writing in his journal and reading novels by Anatole France, the subject of Maggie's college thesis. He finds a phrase that seems to capture his predicament: "The forces of my soul in revolt." These are strong words for a mild-mannered man. Finally he cracks and lets the swans into the guesthouse where he is staying. He registers his displeasure by firing a few stray shots into the room, barely missing the swans. Mr. Norman describes the fallout with characteristic elegance:
The swans sat down. David set the rifle on the kitchen table, said, "I've done some real damage here," a statement that stood for so much. He picked up a peach from the bowl, took a bite of it, spit it out, the most familiar and pleasurable taste in the world to him somehow rancid, though it was a perfectly good peach. He glared at the swans. Half of them squatted there in the sitting room, the rest were in the kitchen all around. They were mute and some had actually begun preening. One swan sauntered over to the fireplace and sat on the empty grate like an iron nest. "You have ugly natures," David said.
Mr. Norman's characters are convincing and sympathetic because they take themselves seriously, even when they have acted absurdly. David accepts that his life has been disrupted, but does not acquiesce. He makes his displeasure known by chastising the swans. There is no purpose to doing so, except that it honors his inner turmoil.
Order is eventually restored to the house, if not David's soul. The book's epigraph comes from Anatole France: "Devotion is a thing that demands motives." David's motives might be mysterious, but they are deeply held. Being devoted may look like being trapped. But as Mr. Norman demonstrates, a placid exterior can be deceptive.
Ms. Grieder is a correspondent for the Economist in Washington, D.C.