Review: Suzette Mary’s Novel « The Sleeping Car Porter »
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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