Toronto Reads

Coureurs De Bois graphic

Coureurs De Bois

Bruce MacDonald
Novel, 2007
Cormorant Books,
trade paperback $12.95


King John graphic

King John of Canada

Scott Gardiner
Novel, 2007
McClelland & Stewart,
hardcover $32.99

December 2007

A cosmic joke on the rough side of town

So many talented, new writers in Toronto. Too many to read really. But a particularly interesting one is Bruce MacDonald, judging by his first novel Coureurs de Bois, which came in spring.

Okay, poor title. Makes one think the book’s either in French or one of those boring Canadian history lessons disguised as fiction.

But it’s neither. It takes place mainly in Toronto’s colourful, if seamy, Parkdale area. The colourful, if seamy, main characters are native convict and cigarette entrepreneur Cobb Seymour; drop-out from the ruling class and Internet-inspired faster Will Tobe; and schizophrenic Robert Polski — the latter being set up by the other two as president of their profitable company engaged in various illegal activities. All three experience visions of various kinds.

Oh, yeah, and there’s Paddy Pape, Cobb’s gay parole officer who is at first blackmailed into turning a blind eye to his charge’s violations but eventually becomes a sort of a den mother to the gang.

And Constable Richard Chase whose career is devastated after he falls asleep in his patrol car and Cobb lifts his gun and badge.

h, yeah, and let’s not forget the females in their lives, like Fatima, the devil woman who kills a chicken and covers herself in its blood preparatory to having sex with Cobb.

It’s all very much as sordid and twisted as this summary probably sounds. But also very sweet. We come to appreciate the bizarre characters very much, even to identify with them, such is the competence of the writing. The journalistically trained MacDonald is straightforward, presenting an unflinching read, like a straight man to the wildly comic partner that is life.

And it is very comic, this life as seen in Coureurs de Bois. It’s violent (with assaults), tragic (with unwanted pregnancies, several deaths), sexual (with rape, prostitutes, one-night stands) and miraculous (with a resurrection, no less), and these aspects are not played down—just played out. But it’s also quite funny, so that one laughs at the vicissitudes—or at least takes them as a big cosmic joke.

Or perhaps as part of a larger picture we scarcely understand. Part of Cobb’s dream or Will’s vision or even Robert’s delusions.

But real or not, at the end of the novel, I was sorry to leave the characters—the yearning to know what happens next being perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay to a novelist who creates real characters.

Not for everyone, but for those who don’t mind it a bit rough, Coureurs De Bois is a find.


Royal story all downhill after the title

Just the opposite from the above review. Great title, one that kept me going further into this awful novel (is that what it is? Or fake memoir? speculative history?) than I otherwise would have.

I mean, the idea of a Canadian monarch is somewhat funny. So one keeps expecting hilarity to ensue. And that seems to be Scott Gardiner’s intent. A few early chapters are promising, especially one about the narrator—who's recalling Canada's king—falling though the ice on a lake and getting rescued by his moronic dog. All right, perhaps not hilarious but diverting.

But as he starts to spin the whole what-if story that involves massive changes to the Canadian constitution being wrought after a few newspaper stories and popularity polls, it gets boring very quickly.

The tale is told in retrospect, as in folk history, with hardly any characters using dialogue or otherwise coming alive. This happened and then that happened and then Toronto businessman John was named king and then this happened and then that happened.

I don’t get it. There’s no story here. Just a report.

Plus a lot of ignorant opinion presented as if it’s representing the voice of the people. Gardiner—or the reminiscing narrator—makes statements about the Canadian political situation that purport to cut through our Gordian knots with common sense. The problem of Quebec sovereignty? It became apparent, we’re told, that Quebec didn’t really want to separate but just used the continual threat to get more for itself. So its bluff was called.

I think Gardiner expects readers to mutter, “Damn right, at last someone’s telling it like it is”, as they read such simplistic analysis.

King John’s biggest ally is the spunky mayor of Toronto, Hester Vale, seemingly a lightly veiled variation on Mississauga’s real-life mayor, Hazel McCallion. In response to favouritisim toward Quebec, Vale threatens to take Toronto out of confederation. (Not a completely crazy idea in my view, but for different reasons.) But she, like John, is never more than a caricature, a stick person to carry the supposedly insightful political and sociological observations of the author.

Eventually the king alienates Toronto by taking pro-American stands internationally, politically attacking certain Arab nations, in what are presented as bravely honest moves: “King John of Canada, alone among all public figures, was willing to take a stand and call a spade a spade.”

But none of this matters. The story never comes to life. Gardiner’s folksy style for the narrator’s voice, with his digressions and his “I should say” and his “Funny, but just this very moment I’ve remembered something else John said”, just weighs down the dry story with further useless verbiage.

There are a couple of twists at the end of the book for those who make it that far, but the payoff is way too little, too late.

The funniest line is in the acknowledgements at the very end after the author cites Machiavelli and Steinbeck as inspirations and then adds,

Everything else in this book comes from the pages of Toronto’s daily newspapers.

That being said, it’s all made up.

Unfortunately, that is also how King John reads.

— Eric McMillan

Coureurs De Bois graphic
Coureurs De Bois
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See also:

Canadian Literature

Leonard Cohen

Beautiful Losers

Stephen Leacock

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town

King John of Canada graphic
King John of Canada
Get at Amazon: Can

missing graphic
Beautiful Losers
Get at Amazon: USCanUK

missing graphic
Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
Get at Amazon: USCanUK