The Sky Manifest

By Brian Panhuyzen

The Sky Manifest is a road novel, of the kind often called “picaresque” because it deals with a wandering, rogue-like figure. The hero, Nathan Soderquist, isn’t a bad man, but he is a tough guy who ends up running from the law for tending to think with his fists and having a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His journey is a wandering one because, after the death of his wife and small daughter (a tragedy he blames himself, a bit unfairly, for), he has no particular destination in mind but only a desire to be moving on, crossing the continent from east to west by car, on bike, and on foot. As he travels he keeps a sporadic journal of descriptions of what the sky looks like, revealing a poetic sensibility and surprising vocabulary.

As with most road novels, the structure is episodic, with Nathan having various adventures at different stops along the way. These episodes usually have him meeting small-town or backwoods weirdos, and involve inflicting, suffering, or recovering from acts of violence. And when Panhuyzen gets into action mode he’s very good, demonstrating a real flair for bone-jarring confrontations and doing a great job capturing the subjective experience of bodies pushed to their limits. Nathan’s trip starts to seem like a survivalist road race as he endures extremes of thirst, sleep deprivation, food poisoning, addiction withdrawal, and serious physical injury. But through it all he just keeps going.

If our hero were just an instinctual brute tormented by human feeling — veins standing out like cables on the back of his hands, smashing down buildings just by running into them — the book would be a thrilling, if somewhat limited, success. Nathan is, however, also weighed down with a clichéd back story that strains to make him into an all-too-familiar figure in Canadian fiction: the hypermasculine but emotionally wounded hero who has to be redeemed through love. Indeed, there are times when Panhuyzen plays up this angle to a degree that seems to be aiming at satire. Meanwhile, the dialogue is made to do too much work, and the novel’s larger moral framework slips from convention into improbability in the denouement.

It’s a testament to how strong the rest of the book is that these problems are overcome. Panhuyzen has a great sense of pace to go with his feel for bodies in motion, and some of the oddballs Nathan encounters, particularly the villains, are wonderfully imagined. The parts don’t always come together to make it a perfect road trip, but there is a great deal to be enjoyed along the way.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, November 2013.

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