There is always one person at a party who can tell a good story. Maybe she starts slowly, setting the stage with some ridiculous coincidences, until a crowd inevitably gathers and hangs off her every word. The excitement builds, along with the increasingly absurd encounters, until, finally, the adventures are just too much to believe. But everyone thoroughly enjoys the journey and no longer cares if the story’s true or not. They leave the party thinking, What fun!
Alfred Homer, the hero of André Alexis’s latest novel, is that type of storyteller. With a dry wit and ironic twist, Alfred calmly narrates an implausible road trip down the back roads of a (mostly) familiar Canadian landscape, meditating on the nature of art, identity, and grief along the way.
The fifth book in Alexis’s award-winning (and intentionally confusing) “quincunx” cycle, Days by Moonlight follows Alfred as he accompanies Professor Morgan Bruno, a friend of his late parents, on a tour of southern Ontario. They set out in the footsteps of John Skennen, a little known and mysteriously disappeared poet. The professor is writing Skennen’s biography and needs a driver; Alfred, for his part, needs a distraction. In addition to having recently lost his parents, he’s been dumped by his long-time girlfriend, and he welcomes a little vacation.
A botanist by trade, Alfred also hopes to catch sight of a legendary flower, Oniaten grandiflora. (In a nod to an Iroquois legend, the name literally means Large Dry Fingers Plant.) For him, this is botany’s holy grail, rumoured to grant healing powers to its seeker.
The novel is fast paced but thoughtful. Alfred follows the friendly professor as he interviews people who have come into contact with the poet. Alfred socializes sometimes, but not always. In one of their first stops, Alfred excuses himself from a literary tiff between the professor and a local, only to be attacked by three Argentine mastiffs. He describes the attack calmly, matter-of-factly, noting his luck that only one large dog attacks him at a time. He gives them their due, admiring their coordinated viciousness, even as they’re out for blood — “Which, to be fair, they got.” The entire scene plays out like an incompetent Hercules thanking Cerberus for the good time.
The professor downplays Alfred’s injuries, but Alfred insists on going to the hospital. Once there, a nonchalant medical staff seems more interested in performing an unnecessary tonsillectomy than in attending to the very real dog bites. The attack and hospitalization put the entire road trip in danger, but the two persevere on their Herculean trip through the underworld of Canadian poetry.
While the professor throws himself into reflective discussions about books, Alfred feigns a relative lack of interest. Yet he is often moved by Skennen’s poetry and describes landscapes, towns, and people with a poetic turn of phrase. Days by Moonlight is, in a lot of ways, a novel filled with novelists (perhaps more than necessary) and heated arguments about fiction and art. A somewhat wistful version of Canada emerges, one where every person reads, writes, makes culture, or knows someone who does.
While he indirectly comments on the perceived value of literature in Canada today, Alexis offers more direct commentary about race and identity. At first, Alfred doesn’t offer physical descriptions of himself, but the featureless chauffeur takes shape as the travellers arrive in Schomberg, a town entirely inhabited by Blacks. (Alexis’s use of the capital‑B noun reads as deliberately provocative.) It is here that Alfred first self-identifies: “Being Black, I’m comforted by the thought of a town of Black people.” Race goes on to become one of Alfred’s defining characteristics and an important marker of identity. But it’s not altogether comforting.
Alfred worries about the professor embarrassing himself, for example, because “Schomberg is difficult for white Canadians to understand.” It seems that it’s been that way for a while. Schomberg was a terminus of the Underground Railroad, where runaway slaves could settle just as long as they didn’t offend the white locals by speaking during the day. In response, they established their own silent language, which appropriates common gestures to amusing effect. It’s loaded commentary on cultural participation and self-identification. “Schomberg had defeated me or taught me again — as if I needed the lesson — the gulf between blood and culture,” Alfred explains. As someone who is Black, he longs for his culture. As an outsider, not raised in the town, he’s not able to speak the language freely.
Alexis uses every stop on the journey to comment on Canadian society with a clever — but sometimes heavy — hand. In Coulson’s Hill, a yearly Indigenous Parade attracts visitors from across Canada, who take part in symbolic, and offensively inadequate, reconciliation activities. In Nobleton, poverty is celebrated in an Extreme Makeover–style spectacle, where two poor families compete, with constantly changing rules, for a free home — if only they can keep it from burning down. In Feversham — a legendary place of visions, visionaries, and prophecy — there are rumours of Alfred’s Oniaten grandiflora. Here, a lucky few fall unconscious and wake with visions of magic and werewolves. The flower, with mystical and magical healing properties, might even have the power to bring back the dead. Alfred’s faith in the mythological plant is a pointed send-up of Instagrammable attempts to become “one with nature.”
Alfred and the professor travel through these didactic places at a rushed pace, so much so that many pages read a bit like a scrolling news feed of topical issues: Race! Reconciliation! Poverty! Spirituality! This being Canada, it all comes to an abrupt halt at Tim Hortons.
Just as in life, Tim’s is a community gathering place in the novel, and an out-of-towner’s best chance to find a bathroom. Alexis does much to question the myth of a shared Canadian experience, but he seems to pull his punches with the chain — more gentle fun than savage critique. In what is our true national pastime, grumpy old men gossip about local events while cradling their white porcelain mugs.
The scene works because you can literally see it playing out in any Tim Hortons across Canada. It is the one place that always feels familiar — even if you don’t like it. Tim Hortons is comfortably universal, the novel tells us. It is a place of bad coffee and plastic waste, but also of healing. It is the rare public place where “all is transcended.” As Canadians, we all eat Timbits — one bite at a time.
To some extent, this is a rumination on grief today — for dead parents, for lost relationships, for enthusiasm for life itself. Alfred appears to be unflappable in the face of dog bites, fires, prophetic visions, and spontaneous healings. But perhaps this is a symptom of a society that leans toward apathy — about the environment, about data privacy, about the nuts and bolts of social issues. In this sense, the typical Canadian is an ostrich with its head in the sand and its ass in the air.
Alexis questions what it is to be that Canadian, but he doesn’t provide easy answers. He moves readers through a disorienting landscape until nothing is recognizable — except for that double-double. Like the guy at the party who tells a good story, Alexis captures our attention and keeps it, changing our perception of things over the course of a few drinks. Days by Moonlight is a delightfully strange, satisfyingly absurd mixture of the fantastic and the real. It destabilizes what we think we know about ourselves and our country. It’s the very best type of social commentary. What fun!