Monday, June 8, 2009

Jeffrey Round reviews Coureurs De Bois

Jeff Round: Gentleman. Scholar. All-around good guy.

Jeff: On seeing a smiling face crossing the Steam Whistle Brewery parking lot with a case of beer in hand, I said to myself, "There goes one happy fellow." Five minutes later, the happy fellow popped into the green room where I sat waiting to read for an audience of brewery tourists. Lucky me. Grabbing a beer from the cooler, Bruce MacDonald sat and introduced himself as the previous reader. Lucky him.

"Butterflies?" he asked, giving me a shrewd look.

"No," I said. "Death In Key West," thinking he'd mistaken the title of my book.

"No, I meant do you get butterflies in your stomach before you read?" he replied.

"No, not usually," I said, not realizing I was smack dab in the middle of what could easily have passed for a scene in Bruce's debut novel, Coureurs de Bois.

Bruce nodded carefully. He explained how he'd had to read over a whirling child whose parents seemed to think it perfectly natural for their son to be spinning up a storm in front of the makeshift stage. "Sorry," he shrugged. "I don't mean to make you nervous."

Too late. But like Bruce, I, too, survived the whirling dervish, the adolescents munching Pringles and the mobs waiting thirstily for their brewery tour to begin. One to remember.

A few days later, I began reading Bruce's novel: Cobb, aka Randall Seymour, is a First Nations Indian. Recently released from prison, Cobb dreams he is about to be hanged. At the last minute, however, he's rescued by Crow. Crow has a mission for him. About the same time, a naïve young Ottawa man named William Tobe has a vision while fasting. The vision sends him to Toronto, rather than to law school as his family had planned.

Both men end up in Parkdale, Toronto's gritty west end that mirrors the upscale, mostly-white east end enclave known as "The Beach" like an evil twin. In Parkdale, crooked cops, crack whores, pimps, and practitioners of magic exist comfortably alongside diner waiters, bank managers, convenience store owners, and residents of the nearby mental health centre. In Parkdale, the insane are misunderstood geniuses and miracles happen amid the dirt and debris of everyday living.

It's here that Will and Cobb find their destinies as twenty-first century equivalents of the renegade coureurs de bois, running not furs but cigarettes. The visionary Seymour, who "sees more", joins forces with William Tobe and his "will to become." Cobb, of course, understands Will's vision, but can't tell him what it means. As with any vision quest, he can only guide Will and help him to find out for himself, as Will eventually does, while making Cobb rich along the way.

Coureurs de Bois is a book of highly subversive humour. It carries depth charges with each subtle, laid-back observation about our social system and why and how we mistreat our social cast-offs. It's satire of a very high order, with the most unlikely mismatching of characters since Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. I read it with that rare sense of joy at discovering something refreshingly unique and occasionally startling.

One night, a few days after the brewery reading, I dreamed Bruce came to my house and left a frozen hamburger patty in my freezer. Then he went away again without speaking. I woke thinking of Cob and Will and their quests. "Hmmm," I thought. This book has strong medicine. If it's a vision quest, however, I have yet to learn what it means. Maybe Bruce will know. Though of course he won't be allowed to tell me.

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