Friday, November 9, 2007

Coureurs de Bois

Debut novel by Canadian author Bruce MacDonald. No relation to the Canadian filmmaker of the almost-same name, Bruce McDonald, though I don’t think I ever clarified that in the piece. (The Toronto Star wisely added a line to that effect when this appeared in spring 2007.)

A familiar Parkdale landmark figures prominently in Torontonian Bruce MacDonald’s debut novel. But the Gladstone Hotel in the pages of Coureurs de Bois isn’t the trendy, scrubbed-up nightspot that’s been hosting book launches and cocktail parties for the past two or three years. Rather, it’s the rough flophouse of an only slightly less recent past, home to barflys and hookers. MacDonald is telling a Parkdale story, but it’s Parkdale before the first tendrils of gentrification began spreading, or at least before anybody noticed them.

That’s reflected in the title, which reinforces the sense of a wilderness that hasn’t yet been tamed (but will be). The two pivots of Coureurs de Bois – modern-day equivalents of the French fur traders of yore who went renegade and allied themselves with the natives – are Cobb, a hulking native fresh out of prison (tax evasion), and Will, an academic prodigy fresh out of the University of Ottawa (economics). The two settle separately in Parkdale, they meet, and they fall into a business partnership, selling black-market cigarettes. Cobb provides the inventory and the street sense, while Will provides the business acumen, and soon enough the two have set up a proper corporation, dumping bucketfuls of cash into its coffers.

(A tiny digression here. However thematically apt it may be, the title probably does the book no favours. Its history-class associations are unlikely to compel the attention of young readers who by all rights should be the natural audience for a contemporary urban novel like this one.)

As the setting and central plot premise suggest, the novel has its share of grim, seriocomic realism – but only a share. MacDonald isn’t afraid to throw in broader touches, like the chance meetings that propel the various secondary characters’ destinies, and even a little straightfaced wackiness, as in Will and Cobb’s scheme to use their cash to buy land in Costa Rica, convinced that oxygen-generating greenery is the great cash crop of the future. At the same time, Coureurs de Bois also traffics in vague spiritual themes. Both Cobb and Will are propelled by visions involving a crow – Cobb’s came in a dream, Will’s during a cleansing fast – that they view as signposts to their purposes in life, even if the directions aren’t always clear. This sets up many ruminations about “the dream economy” and the symbolism of contracts and transactions.

Those ruminations are grounded in a gritty portrait of Parkdale – its variety stores, diners, bars – and an engaging cast of secondary characters. Persey, a suicidal medical student who works at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Centre, falls into a friendship with Will and has a consequential one-night stand with Cobb. Paddy Pape, Cobb’s gay parole officer, struggles with both cancer and his unrequited infatuation for Will. There are others, too: a mentally disturbed woman, a prostitute, a cop, a homeless man. All of them orbit each other, their paths occasionally – and increasingly – intersecting.

MacDonald shows skill in balancing his various characters, motifs, and tones. The novel moves at a quick, punchy pace, the story told in short chapters and scenes that alternate among storylines. At the same time, I sometimes wished MacDonald would go deeper into his themes and his characters. It’s debatable how much the vision-quest stuff really gels; often it seems more like a kind of garnish on the main action. And at certain crisis points, we could use more access to characters’ motivations: their actions seem staged, the emotions behind them ignored or taken for granted.

This is even true of Cobb, to a certain extent, though in general the native ex-con is still MacDonald’s most memorable creation. He’s manipulative and criminal-minded, but he also has a sense of responsibility, a respect for his role in the economy of life. In one delightfully hammy scene, he bumps into a businessman on the street, knocking him over, and then literally picks up the terrified man and brushes him off, apologizing profusely. “Accidents were omens to Cobb; and he behaved accordingly, seeking the goodwill of the victim, hoping to cure quickly any hard feelings that might come to a curse.” If the novel never quite coheres, there’s at least plenty of entertainment along the way.


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