Canadian Dystopia

Patty Osborne

On one of the longest days of the year, a mechanic working at a refinery in northern Alberta leaves work early because of a power outage and then receives a confusing phone call from his aging father. After a restless night the mechanic sets out to drive to his father’s village in northern Ontario. As the drive unfolds, it becomes clear that the country is experiencing a massive power outage; the only cars he sees are filled with people and their belongings and are travelling in the opposite direction. Fueled by white bread, sardines, beer and cigarettes, our narrator drives and drives, passing unattended gas stations, abandoned motels, broken-down vehicles and unofficial checkpoints manned by people who don’t know what’s going on. His thoughts about his life so far and his observations of the countryside and the road ahead and behind him—expressed in poetic but concise language—kept me interested, and his relentless driving pulled me through the story. Eventually he picks up a woman hitchhiker who, after he falls asleep at the wheel a few times, persuades him to take a break and let her drive. Then, just before they reach their destination, a man leaps out at them, they go off the road, the woman disappears, and the mechanic wakes up in a strange bed with his legs encased in blood-soaked bandages. An abrupt ending to Running on Fumes (Talonbooks) by Christian Guay-Poliquin (translated by Jacob Homel), but somehow it fit this great road story.

Then The Weight of Snow (Talonbooks, translated by David Homel) appeared in the Geist mailbox and I was pulled back into the mechanic’s mind. In this sequel, the injured mechanic is lying in a bed in one room of an abandoned house just outside the village where he grew up. The mechanic’s legs had been crushed in the accident, there’s still no electricity, and winter is coming so the mechanic’s relatives have gone to their hunting camp. The mechanic is being cared for by an old man named Matthias who is a stranger to the village but who, in exchange for rations and firewood, has agreed to care for the injured man until spring when the roads will be clear and he can get back to his wife in the city. As the snow falls, Matthias does his exercises, tends to the woodstove, prepares food, forages in the rest of the house and in the nearby town for canned food and books, and dreams of the time when he can get back to his wife. The mechanic is stuck in bed waiting for his legs to heal so when he’s not sleeping, he is observing Matthias or looking through a spyglass at the snow piling up outside the window and at the occasional snowmobile leaving or returning to the village. A few people come by (including the vet who is providing medical care) but otherwise it’s just Matthias and the mechanic figuring out how to live together. At first the mechanic doesn’t speak so Matthias tells him about his own father who refused to join the army during one of the World Wars and instead joined up with others who hunkered down in the woods for the winter and kept from going mad by telling stories to each other. Matthias must change the blood-soaked bandages, lift the mechanic (by hugging him around the chest) to transfer him to a chair in order to bathe him with a rag and a bowl of water, and then change his soiled sheets. Even with this intimate contact, the power dynamic keeps them from opening up to each other and acknowledging that they are in this together. At first Matthias is in charge, but his power diminishes as the mechanic gets stronger and I had to look closely for the small indications that they actually cared about each other. I don’t often like dystopic fiction so I was surprised that I found both these books compelling and I’m still having trouble articulating why. Guay-Poliquin has somehow managed to turn descriptions of a long black highway through the prairies and a snow-filled landscape seen through a cabin window into an engrossing world where nothing monumental needs to happen in order to keep his readers—at least this one—hooked.

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