My bedside is littered with books – a slow slide of magazines, hard covers, and paperbacks loosely grouped into three piles. Read, partially read, and wishful thinking. Novels, travel guides, histories, current affairs. I’m a jack of all trades, plagued by too many interests and too little time. But I find the paper mountain comforting. After all, books do furnish a room.
However, my favourites, if I’m honest, are the novels. I like fiction that goes to places others fear to tread. I want a book to grab me by the throat and squeeze. Hard.
No one does this like Cormac McCarthy. I hardly know where to start, but if I can pick only one, then make it Blood Meridian. A teenage boy joins a band of marauding Indian hunters along the Mexican border in the middle of the 19th century, drawn by the perverse charisma of a man they call the Judge. The ensuing, mythic anti-quest is served up in stark, unstoppable prose. It is dark, harrowing, and so casually violent that the reader is almost ashamed at his compulsion to read on.
McCormac’s Canadian counterpart for terse, muscular prose, has to be Kenneth J. Harvey. But unlike McCormac’s novels, Harvey’s violence seethes just beneath the surface. Inside is the story of wrongfully convicted criminal, Myrden. Released through newly minted DNA technology, Myrden tries desperately to re-adapt to life on the outside. But justice, it seems, has not only failed him. Cruelty and meanness exist everywhere he turns – among his friends, among his family. The reader is lead by the nose through the claustrophobic annals of Myrden’s mind toward an inevitable conclusion, a twisted chance at catharsis and redemption.
Coureurs de Bois, by first-time novelist Bruce MacDonald, is equally confident and self-assured. Randall "Cobb" Seymour, also recently released from prison, has no problem adjusting to civilian life. He simply chooses to supersede it, building an empire out of illegal cigarette sales, weed, prescription drugs and other scams, with the help of a
visionary economics student from the University of Ottawa. The testosterone is thick here. Set in a seedy stretch of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, Coureurs de Bois is a novel where the insane speak oracular truths and a female Christ figure – complete with virgin birth – attempts to kill herself, shocked by the "absolute horror of the human condition." The characters here are full-blown and fascinating. The pacing is immaculate. The humour black, intelligent, and just as likely to reinforce a stereotype as deflect one.
On par with the insanity of Coureurs de Bois, and set in a more relevant time period, is Elle, by Douglas Glover. Satirical and Rabelaisian in its excesses, Elle tells the story of a young French woman shipwrecked and alone in the New World. A true hedonist, Elle abandons all her courtly, aristocratic upbringing, and by novel’s end, reinvents herself as shamanesque chimera. Pyretic violence brings the novel to its close, leaving the reader to sort through well-springs of spiritual imagery and symbolism, both real and imagined.
Last, but not least, Robert Hough’s The Culprits is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last few years. It has the indiscernible quality of readability. You simply cannot put it down. Hank Wallins, a former merchant sailor cum lonely computer operator, lives through a near-death experience, which propels him into the arms of a mail-order bride. Anna Verkoskova née Mikhailovna, a near-pretty student from St. Petersburg with a wandering eye, draws the unwitting Hank into a baffling and complicated tale of love, loss, and ... international terrorism. Woven by one of the most ingenious and fascinating narrators in recent history, this novel juggles the madcap with the sober, the tragic with the comic. It flirts with the melodramatic as often as it plays with the improbable, without ever actually crossing either line. Its humour and wit give weight to its eventual calamity, and its voice – full of the sing-song qualities of Slavic constructions – is as endearing as a Dr. Seuss fable. In short, it is a fine balance.