by George Elliott Clarke.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2016
288 pp; $16.99
George Elliott Clarke, an accomplished poet, playwright and essayist, turns his considerable talent to writing a novel offering a protagonist infrequently portrayed in Canadian literature. The Motorcyclist depicts a year in the life of Carl Black, a young black man in post-war Halifax. Told with energetic and lyrical prose, the author, a Toronto-based writer born and raised in Windsor, Nova Scotia, was inspired by the motorcycle diary of his father. Clarke creates a character who is neither hero nor anti-hero, but rather one man attempting to negotiate his way within an environment that is limiting, laden with ‘British’ culture and potent with hostility. A ‘player’ in the dating world, Carl juggles dates with several females at a time as the novel progresses, aiming for conquest without entanglement. His pre-occupation with sexual gratification drives the plot, though not the novel’s ultimate message.
Carl’s other passions include his motorcycle, the ‘Liz 11’ (also referred to as the ‘BMW’ after its model designation). He has an appetite for high, low, white and black culture—despite only having a grade 10 education. Artistic and talented, he is frustrated with work at the railway yard and dreams of a better situation.
Carl also has buddies—one black friend will “steal” his ‘girl’, others join him on motorcycle rides. The lingo of the era lends an authenticity to the narration and echoes Beat generation authors, as this description of Carl illustrates: “So he desires Coloured chicks and white dolls (the Playboy school of Integration). He loves Beethoven, Bach, and his BMW. He classifies himself as the most incongruous—most conspicuously debonair—Negro in all of Nova Scotia.”
Carl perceives and articulates life through a racial lens. There are history/sociology lessons in this novel too. Black women are realistically portrayed—holding family together and frequently abandoned, beaten but still striving. A back beat to the novel is periodic insertions of newspaper headlines Carl will glimpse, providing reminders of the wider North American culture in 1959.
Despite a liberalism which allows blacks in Nova Scotia to vote and marry whites, Carl’s damning ‘snapshot’ is of “white towns serviced by slapped-together black villages, while each white-ruled city fields a black shantytown.” In comparison to the racially segregated American states, Carl believes Nova Scotia is “just a frosty salt-spray South.”
Depictions of landscapes Carl rides through on his motorcycle are sensual and gritty, as is this sketch of the port of Halifax: “….the harbour piers, docks, wharves, storage tanks (here oil, there molasses), and multifarious vessels, some flapping sails and others belching smoke. The smell is rousing, too: fresh-caught mackerel vies with the Moirs Chocolates factory aroma; and there’s the salt-water-laden gusts off the Atlantic, plus the diesel fumes of some cargo ships and the oily odours of other vehicles.”
Carl’s world view includes the city’s social and racial divide. On one side of Halifax is the ‘leafy South End’ where some ‘Negroes’ are maids to the wealthy white families and on the other, a “rat-infested” North End where most ‘Negroes,’ live. ‘Coloureds,’ (as black people were called), avoided the South End at night, Carl observes, fearing they would be mistaken for prowlers or prostitutes. Black peoples’ lives have been “pinched” Carl believes: “Their static mobility was to shuttle daily from black warrens to white burgs where they could own no property nor travel after sundown and perform heart-crushing toil for minuscule coins.”
Carl’s motorcycle is his liberator: “….Carl fears the CNR has him penned up and pinned down—like a stallion, a Black Beauty, corralled by railway tracks and outpaced by those steel wheels. No wonder he’s got to jump on Liz II and have his Freedom…..”
A solo trip on the ‘Liz 11’ to New York City provides one such breath of fresh air. Liberated in this most liberal of North American cities, Carl soaks up great performances at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, takes in Broadway plays and art galleries, and savours the varied restaurant fare. He’s too busy enjoying to write lengthy diary entries as one excerpt shows: “See large party on at Rockefeller Centre. Jukebox blasts jazzy chaos. Ginsberg’s Howl as interpreted by Howlin’ Wolf.”
Carl’s interactions with the women he meets, white and black, do much to propel him forward and ultimately influence his destiny. Among them is Laura States, a student at the teacher’s college in Windsor, “”where the States clan—of ex-U.S. slave descent—settled.” She is “kicking up her heels” in Halifax when she meets up with Carl. “Her skin is pass-for-white cream,” Carl observes, “but Laura’s dark sable eyes hint at her Negro cum Micmac mix.” Another portrait is of Muriel Dixon, a nursing student who is “a liquorice-coloured woman, with a jutting, horizontal bosom, straight black hair, violet lips, and mocha-sweet eyes….”
Each tryst provides a narrative thread building a web of Carl’s own making. While the sexual play is not subtle, the epiphanies are. As Carl’s diary entries comes to an end, the author leaves much for both Carl and the reader to ponder. Beautifully crafted, close to the bone in its offered perceptions and true to the context of time and place, “The Motorcyclist” is entertaining and thoughtful, a must read for Canadians on both sides of the racial divide.