Coureurs de Bois

By Bruce MacDonald

Coureurs de Bois begins with a dream. The dreamer is Cobb, a bad-ass native Canadian (half Mohawk, half Ojibwa) residing in Warkworth Prison after conspiring to defraud the government by selling cigarettes tax-free. The fact that his dream begins with him escaping from prison only to be captured and hanged, then freed by Crow as part of a binding “contract” is significant. When Cobb leaves Warkworth he will no longer be an “idle spirit wanderer” but someone with a job. A job that automatically takes the form of the same criminal career that got him thrown in prison in the first place.

Clearly there is something circular in all of this. One gets the feeling that there is no escape, from the dream or the prison or the grind of having to make a living on the outside. As Cobb understands things, the “whole modern world was a system of enslavement.” That “system” is economic, and, along with student economist Will Tobe (who is also compelled by a dream vision), Cobb is soon involved in all aspects of it. Cobb and Will hook up in Toronto’s Parkdale, itself a desperate product of the system:

The neighbourhood was not nearly as dilapidated as some sections of US cities, but by Toronto standards it was bottom-shelf. The western perimeter of the city centre – ten to fifteen blocks west of the skyscrapers, the bank buildings, the investment houses, Bay Street – consisted mainly of three- and four-storey brick buildings, storefronts, coffee shops, taverns, TV repair shops. The apartments above these were cockroach-infested, under-maintained dwellings owned by the sub-literate thugs who circumvented the Landlord and Tenant Act and took a good portion of their tenants’ welfare cheques from them. The locals were a combination of delusionals, bail recognizance breachers and other voluntary and involuntary seekers of anonymity.

Notice how Parkdale is located by its relationship not just to the downtown core but specifically to the financial district, and that life in Parkdale is based on a system of economic exploitation. MacDonald never strays far from his theme.

Because the essence of that theme is that there is nowhere to stray to. There’s no getting outside the system. There’s always some kind of deal going down, often involving blackmail, the black market, barter, or the banking business. A mental patient attempts to sell his prescription drugs. Kinky sex is pay-to-play. Dreams involve contracts enforceable in the waking world. Original sin and karma are just some of the “evidence of an economy run by God” (and God himself is an economist). “Economics,” Will explains at one point, “is our fundamental communication,” a theory of exchange inherent in language itself. We are reminded that even those icons of the open road, the coureurs de bois, were commercial travelers, “entrepreneurs in the fur trade, ignoring the king’s declared right to the monopoly.”

The business partnership between Cobb and Will is the modern form this historical collaboration takes, and in the character of Will Tobe MacDonald has created one of the odder heroes of our time to represent the European half of it. In keeping with the spirit of a book that begins with matching dream visions, Will seems to spend most of the novel in an almost comatose, sleepwalking state. This is reflected in the flat, understated prose.

Will was a precocious young man. He had skipped two grades and entered university at sixteen and would have a degree before the end of his twenty-first year. When he was first told about the ulcer, he thought for sure that he had placed an inordinate amount of stress on himself.. He had pushed himself too hard. His body was just doing its job. Then the doctor told him that such notions were now seen as medical myths, and that a peptic ulcer was caused by a bacterial infection. This caused Will long hours of research on bacteria. There were good and bad bacteria in the body all the time. Bacteria was needed, and he thought this was fascinating.

This lack of affect is not irony. Nor is it cool. It is a reflection of the shallowness at the core of the not-yet-fully-mature Administrative Man (Will’s father is an economic-lobbyist with a right-wing think tank, his sister a financial analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, his mother does his laundry). Of course he already has an ulcer, though that is in no way related to the fact that he’s the kind of precocious drudge who puts in “long hours of research” into his medical conditions. The kind of person who sets his vision down as a numbered list of significant items. One whose exercises in “deep introspection” are mere etchings on emptiness. The only time Will really comes to life is when in pursuit of some extrapolation of economic theory. When he raises the subject of his vision with a potential romantic attachment the conversation inevitably slops back into the sheer grayness of his identity:

Will didn’t seem delusional to her. He briefly mentioned his vision; he spoke almost entirely about economics and public policy. She had met this kind of boy before. He was a typical Ottawa boy. He wasn’t insane. He was just a little off. She imagined him in the small attic room he had told her about, surrounded by stacks of books he had been meaning to read. She envied the freedom of his life.

That last sentence is a good example of MacDonald’s sighing sense of humour, but it also makes a point about Will. By the way most of us measure these things, he is free. That is, at least by the end of the book, he has finally made it (both literally and metaphorically). But is he redeemed? What has his vision quest achieved? Does the larval bureaucrat become a butterfly?

Readers will have to answer that question for themselves. My own sense is that he is not transformed. In a book that frequently mixes the visionary and the mundane, the magical and the mean, Will fails to escape the world of moral ledgers and emotional autarky.

For a first novel, however, Coureurs de Bois makes an impression. MacDonald’s irregular society of Parkdale drifters includes some memorable characters and his writing is both practical and intelligent. Or economical, as the gods of its world would no doubt account it. All adding up to a debut well worth checking out.

Review first published online July 24, 2007. I read this book at the same time as I was reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which I criticized for its description of Edward’s semen drying to a “cracked glaze” instantly upon touching Florence’s skin. In this book, Cobb’s parole officer Paddy Pape falls asleep after eating dinner and masturbating, waking up at midnight to find his issue still wet on his stomach. Which by my reckoning must be at least several hours later. I find neither account credible.

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