Generally, historiography has not paid much attention to the serving classes. Regents, wars and revolutions, yes; kitchen maids and chimney sweeps, not so much.
As for a black train porter in Canada circa 1929 who was also gay and a Caribbean immigrant? Inventive to the core and peerless as a storyteller, Calgary’s Suzette Mayr enchants with a charming (but also touching and slightly feverish) tale of one such émigré. Nominated for the Giller Prize, Mayr’s eighth book is fiction that wraps a gripping history lesson in an artfully constructed story that moves, seduces and satisfies.
The latest in a line of delightful (and delightfully idiosyncratic) novels that began 27 years ago with ‘Moon Honey,’ ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’ charts RT Baxter during a Montreal-Vancouver shift that gets swept away by a landslide outside of Banff.
Sci-fi fan and “future dentist” in his early thirties (although “his bones, his joints vibrate as if he were approaching his 189th birthday”), Baxter considers himself “a rattling robot, created to serve… a humming automaton, screwed to entertain.
With his tuition forever on his mind, Baxter worries about the “little bully” (a heavy instruction manual in his pocket), demerits (which may get him fired and end his dream of returning to Montreal for the school), “watchers” (hired by the company to report employee infractions), and demanding supervisors (one of whom suffers from shell shock).
Malnourished and sleep-deprived as the train crosses plains and prairies, Baxter, nicknamed “Martian” by his colleagues and called – along with “Porter”, “George” and “Boy” – by passengers, fights for perform a mountain of homework.
All the while, the hallucination-prone man worries about intrusive troubles – a transvestite flapper, a clairvoyant, a stowaway, a homoerotic postcard, missing towels he’ll have to pay for – and yearns for his late Aunt Arimenta. , which he imagines as telling him the “name for when your insides feel the same as a vast orchard of withered trees.” (Mayr reuses a tweet from actor Dan Levy’s mother, Deborah Divine — “he’s twirled one too many times in front of his cousins” — to contextualize the shame and disappointment expressed by Baxter’s conservative mother.)
As Baxter tends to the passengers he dubs “Mango” (who promises money for sexual favors) and “Pulp and Paper” (businessmen who consider the porter their personal circus performer), Mayr’s singular prose highlights the many – and seemingly inescapable – aspects of man. obligations.
And as Baxter walks past Winnipeg and Regina, he summons a stealthy sexual story, all with enormous ambivalence: “…once in the bathroom, twice in an alley, always in the dark. Maybe other times he didn’t want to talk about. Men, “voracious and silent creatures”, attract him and confuse him. Sexual contact elevates Baxter, but a meaningful connection outside of fast and dark dates remains entirely elusive.
Mayr remains silent on how 1930 and beyond will unfold for Baxter. Her gift to him, however, is a conclusion scene rich in possibility, a suggestion that times were tough but not always and not for everyone.
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