In 1914, illustrator Rockwell Ken moved his family from Manhattan to the small island of Brigus, Newfoundland, to escape a city ''full of idiots'' and ''the chunk shunk of the subway.'' The next year, he was deported back to New York amid rumors of international espionage (false) and adultery with his children's nanny (true). This slim but juicy episode in the lefty artist's life is the focus of Michael Winter's keenly observed novel, The Big Why. Writing in short, almost stream-of-consciousness spurts of dialogue and prose, Winter vividly describes the starkness of living in a tiny fishing town and an emotionally selfish man's struggle to come to terms with his conscience. But in zeroing in on Kent's fallibility, Winter's faux memoir loses sight of what made the artist truly unique.