"Long, long, long live Joey Smallwood" (Imaginings)
The Walrus, July 2006
There are occasions when, looking out from the top storey of the Independence Building, Joey Smallwood wishes he could spend some time among the mortals. He enjoys watching them walk on the catwalk that extends from Signal Hill to the cliff above Fort Amherst.
In 1975, a few years after his twenty-three-year reign as premier of Newfoundland concluded, and long before the "end of history" was proclaimed, Smallwood consulted with an end-o-chronologist. At first, he thought the doctor was just another charlatan, and his "youth serum" just another form of snake oil. But the man proved his claims and his worth by extending Smallwood's life indefinitely.
More than five hundred years later, Smallwood is the only living Father of Disintegration. Disintegration followed what was known in the West as the Civil War and in the East as the War of Western Aggression, fought in 2056 when, its oil wells dry, Alberta attacked Newfoundland but was routed by an armada of Newfoundland gunboats. Smallwood led the Newfoundland fleet and his people were proud.
He has won 123 consecutive elections by acclamation, but is no more a dictator than other immortal leaders of the world. He has, and has always had, political opponents, but they switched allegiance to him when he offered each of them a Cabinet post and its attendant immortality. For hundreds of years now, to the bewilderment of the mortals, Smallwood's most embittered political enemies have crossed the House of Assembly to sit with him. During elections, the mortals have had no party to vote for but Smallwood's.
Every day is his seventy-fifth birthday. No one else in his Cabinet is allowed to have a birthday, not even once a year, but Smallwood's is celebrated every night at nine. His ministers sing,
We hope we live to see a hundred
We hope we live to see a hundred
We hope we live to see a hundred
A hundred more of you.
He does not drink at these soirees, though his ministers drink so much that they are known among the mortals as the Liquor Cabinet. His ministers are all ministers without portfolio, Smallwood having reserved for himself the right to run all seventy-three departments of government. His ministers do only whatever hack work he lacks the time, energy, or inclination for.
Smallwood and his end-o-chronologist doctor are the only Newfoundlanders with direct access to the youth serum, which doesn't reverse the ageing process but merely stops it. Being injected with the serum once a week does the trick. Smallwood administers all injections himself and keeps in check whatever recalcitrance remains among Cabinet members by suspending the serum privileges of upstarts. All of his ministers' apparent ages are greater than his; to judge by appearances, some are well over a hundred. There are and have been no women in Smallwood's Cabinet, though a group of them attend his birthday parties every night. These women, because they too receive the youth serum, are forever in their late twenties. Smallwood always leaves the parties before the Never Ageing Girls arrive.
One of the advantages of being immortal is that you eventually make - and make up for - every possible mistake. Smallwood thought back on the Upper Churchill contract with Quebec, the Come By Chance oil refinery, joining Canada. With centuries of experience under his belt, he is far less likely now to be duped by an outsider. Still, he has had lapses, such as when he signed on with a Norwegian company that falsely claimed it had found a way to convert seagull waste into methane gas. The Under-Utilized Feces Agreement between Newfoundland and Norway expires in eight hundred years, until which time Norway will gather up and sell to Newfoundland all of its seagull waste. For a hundred years, freighters full of gull feces have arrived every week. There were mishaps at sea, which Smallwood's detractors gleefully referred to as "shitwrecks," and pictures ran in newspapers and on TV of seabirds floundering about covered in waste of their own creation. Bleeding-heart, bucket-wielding fecologists in rubber boots tried in vain to wipe them clean.
Outraged over the number of times that Quebec had renewed its lucrative option on the Upper Churchill, Smallwood built new turbines on the Lower Churchill and diverted all the power corridors so that they ran through Newfoundland and not a single watt reached La Belle Province. Ignoring the advice of his advisers, whose advice on any subject he had yet to take, Smallwood built a hydro-power corridor from Labrador to New York, submerging cables beneath the Strait of Belle Isle, then extending them down the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, and submerging them again beneath the Gulf of St. Lawrence and all the way to the island of Manhattan. The diversion of the power lines was so costly that it will be a thousand years before the new Churchill project turns a profit, but at least the humiliation is over.
At night, Smallwood dreams about an Industrial Reparation and Restitution program, which he would call the Charlatan Accord, that would legalize the expropriation of any company and the arrest of any individual who had ever tricked him into signing an absurdly one-sided deal to the detriment of Newfoundland. The law would require the repayment of ill-gotten gains and a public apology to him, and would be retroactive. Smallwood foresees a long line of figures from his past, starting with the Latvian-born economic adviser Alfred Valdmanis, whose supposed specialty was the stimulation of the economies of underdeveloped countries but whose real specialty was making himself rich to the point of his clients' near-bankruptcy.
The standard of living has never been better in Newfoundland, which now consists only of what was once called the Avalon Peninsula. The isthmus that once joined Avalon to the main island was long ago submerged when, with the melting of the polar ice caps, the oceans of the world rose a hundred feet. Tourism is at an all-time high because of the many and wondrous not-yet-melted icebergs in the bay. Glacial melting has sunk most of the other tourist meccas of the world - Mecca itself is submerged - so Avalon has benefited from an endless fleet of icebergs, one of the few natural attractions left.
The fish having returned and Smallwood, not wanting a repeat of their disappearance, had a giant banner hung across the narrows of St. John's harbour. Visible to all boats putting out to sea, it reads: Be Careful What You Fish For.
But the main source of revenue is oil. All is well. Or, as the licence plates of Newfoundland cars now read, Oil Is Well. No sooner does one well run dry than another is discovered. Oil rigs proliferate on the Grand Banks. There are now five hundred of them. When the oil first began to run out in Alberta, all the Newfoundlanders living there were sent back to Newfoundland during what became known as Go Home Year. This was partly in response to 2054, the year before, when, having lost patience with expatriate Newfoundlanders, Smallwood declared it Don't Come Home Year.
The steamiest, least habitable parts of the world are known as No Zones. In the hothouse that is now the world, oil is used mainly to power air conditioners. When the war was over and other countries of the world protested the plight of the poor Albertans, Smallwood famously said, "Let the Western bastards swelter in the dark." He hoped that St. John's would one day be named Petropolis and Newfoundland would be Petroland. Smartly dressed, fastidiously groomed men who make their money from oil are already known as "petrosexuals."
The massive majority of Newfoundlanders who support Smallwood are called Gruntles, and one of Smallwood's most important Cabinet portfolios is known as drug, the Department for the Restoration of Universal Gruntlement. Gruntlement has yet to achieve universal acceptance, but only Smallwood and his end-o-chronologist are bothered by this, and both know that the electorate generally likes the idea that all things good date from the old days. "What is nostalgia," Smallwood asked his Cabinet, "but the desire for things to go back to the way they never were?"
The liquor of choice is a scotch called scorch, which can be had on a street of bars called Gorge Street, where fish and chips are served free.
Among his plans for the future is the creation of the Department of Jurisdictional Realignment, under which the 200-mile limit would become the 400-mile limit and the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon would be annexed. The Department of Demographic Reassignment, formerly known as the Resettlement Program, has recently moved all Newfoundlanders to five cities on the island of Avalon. Eventually they will need another reassignment, and the renamed Peter and Michelon Islands will feature five-star restaurants.
In the future, one that Smallwood will live to see, all land masses will be swallowed up by water and all people will live in floating metropolises - a civilization of elevated cities built atop movable oil rigs and between which travel will be impossible except by helicopter. He imagines these cities bobbing up and down, each one flying a flickering, flag-like flame. Photographed from above at night, they will look like the cities of the earth once did when seen from outer space. And no nation on earth will have more oil or more floating petro-metros than Newfoundland.
Wayne Johnston is a Newfoundland-born writer. His next novel, Custodian of Paradise, will be published by Knopf Canada this fall.