Generally, historiography hasn’t been all that attentive to the serving classes. Regents, wars and revolutions, yes; scullery maids and chimney sweeps, not so much.
As for a Black train porter in Canada circa 1929 who was also homosexual and an immigrant from the Caribbean? Inventive to the core and peerless as a storyteller, Calgary’s Suzette Mayr enchants with a lovely (as well as touching and ever-so-slightly fevered) account of one such émigré. Nominated for the Giller Prize, Mayr’s eighth book is fiction that envelopes an absorbing history lesson within an artfully constructed story that moves, beguiles, 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” traces R.T. Baxter on a Montreal-Vancouver work shift that gets waylaid by a mudslide outside of Banff.
A science fiction fan and “dentist-to-be” on the cusp of thirty (though “his bones, his joints, rattle like he’s edging into his 189th birthday”), Baxter regards himself as “a clicking Robot, created to serve … a whirring automaton, screwed together to entertain.”
With future tuition forever in mind, Baxter frets about “the little tyrant” (a weighty instruction manual in his pocket), receiving demerits (which can get him fired and end his dream of returning to Montreal for school), “spotters” (hired by the company to report employee infractions), and exacting supervisors (one of whom suffers from shell-shock).
Undernourished and sleep-deprived as the train crosses plains and Prairie, Baxter, nicknamed “Martian” by colleagues and beckoned — with “Porter,” “George” and “Boy” — by passengers, struggles to carry out a mountain of duties.
All the while, the hallucination-prone fellow worries about intrusive problems — a cross-dressed flapper, a clairvoyant, a stowaway, a homoerotic postcard, missing towels he’ll have to pay for — and yearns for his deceased aunt Arimenta, who he imagines as telling him the “name for when your insides feel the same as a wide orchard of blighted trees.” (Mayr repurposes a tweet from actor Dan Levy’s mother Deborah Divine — “he twirled one too many times in front of his female cousins” — to contextualize the shame and disappointment expressed by Baxter’s conservative mother.)
As Baxter attends to passengers he nicknames “Mango” (who promises cash for sexual favours) and “Pulp and Paper” (businessmen who regard the porter as a their personal circus performer), Mayr’s singular prose highlights the man’s numerous — and seemingly inescapable — bonds.
And as Baxter passes Winnipeg and Regina, he summons a furtive sexual history, all with tremendous ambivalence: “… one time in a lavatory, two times in a laneway, always in the dark. Maybe some other times he didn’t want to talk about.” Men, “ravenous, silent creatures,” entice and confound him. Sexual contact exhilarates Baxter but a meaningful bond outside of quick, shadowy trysts remains wholly elusive.
Mayr remains mum about how 1930 and onward will unfold for Baxter. Her gift to him, though, is a concluding scene rich with possibility, a suggestion that times were tough but not always and not for everybody.
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