Lisa Moore’s latest novel is an adventure story; a true page-turner set in the late 1970’s. The protagonist, David Slaney, has escaped from a federal penitentiary in rural Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. At the beginning of chapter one he has just scrambled under a fence still wearing his prison uniform. He manages to reach a highway and rendezvous with a truck driver who is part of the plan to help him evade the authorities who would soon be trying to recapture him with searchlights and dogs. David has spent four years of his youthful twenties in jail paying for the crime of smuggling a large shipment of marijuana between Columbia and Newfoundland. He and his partner, Hearn almost succeeded in their illegal enterprise but they had foolishly chosen a remote and isolated community to land their cargo where the arrival of outsiders would naturally attract the interest of the local inhabitants as if it were headline news. The fishermen working along the coastline realised their movements were blatantly suspicious and reported them to the police. David was tried and convicted but Hearn was freed when his father posted bail for him using his house as a surety. He jumped bail and escaped to Vancouver and in doing so ruined his father financially and emotionally. Hearn is not a nice person which explains why he was a more successful criminal than David Slaney. David on the other hand, is portrayed as a charming good-looking young man who was unwise and guileless. He lacked the stealth and the cold-blooded intelligence to be a good criminal and so true to character, as soon as he escaped he headed west in order to meet up with certain trouble: his old partner Hearn. In the meantime, Hearn was pursuing a PhD in English Literature under a new identity at the University of British Columbia. I thought to myself, that in making the criminal mastermind of this novel a passionate lover of literature Lisa Moore must be making a joke her fellow authors would appreciate, for are not all novelists plotters and schemers at their core and are not we, as readers, their equally passionate collaboraters?
A more exact title for this novel might have been Caught–Up because David Slaney is just that; caught up in the need to reclaim the four years he lost in prison, caught up in his desire to find his lost girlfriend who has married someone else and most of all David Slaney is caught up in his longing to go back home to the island of Newfoundland. Pursuing this last idea the author makes reference to Homer’s Odyssey not that David Slaney, the likeable, ordinary, good guy, in any way resembles Odysseus, king, war hero, and leader of men. David has none of those qualities but his story resembles that of Odysseus in that his journey home takes him on many surprising side adventures and introduces him to interesting characters all of whom have their own unique stories to tell. Like Odysseus, David goes way off course in pursuit of home travelling 6000 kilometers westward to the Pacific rim when home is in the north Atlantic on the other side of the continent. Lisa Moore makes playful references to the Odyssey creating a very believable modern-day Cyclops working in a cave-like building in Montreal as well as a beautiful Siren who lures David to his doom or, maybe his salvation (although here I am guilty of mixing Greek mythology with the language of Christianity but never mind… it is all good fun).
The twist to this story that allows us to suspend our disbelief is that the police have deliberately allowed David Slaney to escape. They want him to lead them to Hearn who has evaded capture for so many years. David’s movements are closely tracked by an odd, sad police officer named Patterson. This is the nineteen seventies so there are no fancy electronic aids to help Patterson in his work. He has to rely on his wits and his luck to keep up with David’s trek across the continent. This was also an era before personal computers and the Internet or the convenience of even the most elementary cell phone. When Patterson needed to speak with his head office he had to use a payphone. The one new technology that was referenced was a satellite tracking system that the police were using to follow the yacht David sailed to Columbia. This created a sort of eye in the sky which is another reference to the Odyssey where the gods of Mount Olympus monitored and sometimes manipulated events on earth.
There is much I admired in this book starting with its lovely clear prose followed by all the colourful characters presented in such a way that the reader sees each of them holding the potential for another novel. There was, for example, the unhappy bride having trouble getting into her wedding gown who takes time to hide David from the police and the two friendly strippers making their living going from one dingy rural bar to another and the truck driver who preferred beekeeping to driving his rig and the compulsive gambler who gambled away all his household furniture without telling his wife. The reader is provided self-contained vignettes that say just enough about each character’s life to make them interesting and believable and yet we can move on to the next stage of David’s journey without feeling that we have somehow been short-changed on detail. Although the plot meandered, I liked that too. For the first half of the novel the Yellow Brick Road is the Trans Canada Highway and then for the second half David Slaney is sailing a beautiful yacht along the Pacific coast down to South America. The sailing part of this novel has a feeling of open skies, freedom and fresh sea air. Then there is the partying with Columbian drug lords who seem to have been far more sociable back in the nineteen seventies than their brutal successors of the new millennium.
I found this to be a great novel for escaping a cold Canadian winter. It made me feel as if I were on vacation in a better climate as I followed someone else’s adventures. However, I hope my reading was more sympathetic than those gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus who watched with cold amusement the follies and failings of humankind