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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Colombia North circa 1978

Smugglers and undercover cops in Newfoundland's amateur drug trade

Mark Frutkin


Lisa Moore

House of Anansi Press

318 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780887842450

In a start appropriate to a thriller, Caught, Lisa Moore’s latest novel, opens with young David Slaney escaping from a Nova Scotia prison in 1978 where he has been serving a long sentence for drug smuggling. Some years before, Slaney and his old friend and fellow smuggler, Hearn, had been caught in an unexpected fog off the coast of Newfoundland and had failed in their attempt to bring to shore two tons of marijuana from Colombia. The sly Hearn then skipped out on bail and disappeared while Slaney took the rap.

The first quarter of the novel is as suspenseful as a walk across a high wire as we feel Slaney’s stress and tension, when each thump on the door could be the knock of doom, the police coming to rearrest him and haul him back to prison. He explores the meaning of trust and doubt in this context and how, in each situation, he has to choose one or the other. Slaney would have done well to investigate his trust in his old friend Hearn, for he plans to rejoin his buddy and smuggle another boatload of drugs. He imagines greater success this time, based on his hard-won experience. However, Slaney’s blind trust in his old friend does not ring true.

While the characters in Caught are generally believable, and Slaney himself surprisingly likable, the plot comes crashing into shore like a thin-hulled ship hitting the rocks. When we learn that the police have let Slaney escape from prison so that they can follow him, allow him to meet with Hearn and ultimately track their sailing venture to another arrest on Canadian shores, the story is simply not credible. Over and over, the plot gets tangled in nets of unlikelihood. It all feels somewhat far-fetched for a novel written in a straight-forward, realistic mode.

The difficulty with plot is magnified when a cop named Patterson is assigned to go undercover and offer Slaney and Hearn money to help fund their illegal venture. Patterson is pictured as a bumbling, sweating loser and would last about the time it takes to smoke one joint before being fingered as an undercover detective. Even though this was the age of amateur drug smugglers (and police new to the drug trade), Patterson lacks the nerves of ice and the easy cool that undercover work almost certainly requires.

As in all of Lisa Moore’s previous work, including the novels, Alligator and February (long listed for the Man Booker Prize and winner of Canada Reads), as well as her short story collection, Open, the saving grace here is her use of language and her incredibly precise attention to everyday detail.

The reader can only marvel at the precision of Moore’s observations.

Here is her description of an old man’s tortured walk: “There was an extra swivel in his gait, an almost lewd skewing of bone and pain and he was bent forward. One hip rode up too high and hitched on the way down. Or the left knee gave out at the last minute. The old man had a faith in the knee that he lost and regained with each step.” The codger’s gait is described with such precision, it is as if she had videotaped it and then played it over and over again until the bones, muscles, tendons and his disjointed motions coalesced into a mental image made of words and phrases.

The reader can only marvel at the precision of her observations, as in the description of Slaney as “he hunched down near the barbecue and had to bounce a bit on the balls of his feet to unwedge the matches from the pocket of the tight new jeans.”

Usually, these details are the lifeblood of the novel and offer the reader extraordinary insight into the passing world. At times, however, this microscopic vision can feel too strained, so acute it is all stainless steel and glass: “The ridge of the bifocals fell exactly halfway across the man’s eyes, magnifying the bottom half; the brown irises were vulnerable and watery. There was a bright crimson dot in the left iris, just below the pupil. The pouches beneath the man’s eyes were veined with violet lines and pressed upon by the black frames; in the top hemisphere, above the ridge of thickened glass, the irises were sharp and calculating.” This is far more information than the reader needs or wants.

Moore’s penetrating vision and the language that expresses it raise the question: Does this razor-sharp view resonate with the character of David Slaney and the world he inhabits? The answer is no. It is clearly the vision of the author and this throws the book somewhat off kilter. A strong disconnect intrudes between language and character—Slaney himself would never see the world so acutely, for his vision is all about the “pot” of gold at the end of his imagined rainbow.

On the other hand, Moore renders dialogue with marvellous facility (here the language is entirely appropriate), as in this short exchange between two characters:
I couldn’t get my car started there, last winter, was it, Gerald?

Spark plug, the man said.

Worst kind of weather, Harold’s sister said.

Replaced the spark plug, he said.

Moore can also write humour that zings. In one scene, Slaney is hiding out in a hotel. The police have come looking for him and he talks his way into a room where a bride is preparing for her wedding.
Officers, she said.

Good evening, ma’am, one of the cops said.

I hope so, she said. I’m about to get married.

We were wondering if you’ve seen any suspicious activity, the officer said. Anyone looking like they might be on the run.

Are you talking about the groom? she said.

We’re looking for a young fellow, six-foot-two, blue eyes, black hair, slender of build, some would say handsome-looking guy.

I was looking for one of them too, she said. But you settle for what you get.

A truly hysterical scene, but again, a bit hard to believe that the young bride would shelter an escaped convict she had just met.

It must be added that the novel is also rife with small errors of detail that mar its excellent writing: no cameras were allowed in Canadian trials in the 1970s; woodpeckers do not peck trees at night; seatbelts did not exist in the 1960s, and so on. Trifling mistakes but disturbing in a novel of this quality.

Moore has a genuine skill with minor characters. Slaney’s old girlfriend, Jennifer, is both soft-hearted and hard-edged; the owner of the sailboat, a lush named Cyril, is both broken and lovable. Every truck driver and bartender is limned in a few telling lines that bring the characters to life.

In the end, the fine writing rescues this novel, even with all its far-fetched plot elements. In one scene, the faithful reach for the hymn books: “the Church had filled with the rustling of pages so thin the print of both sides showed through them.” And again, “she brought the dish of marmalade across the table by sticking her knife into it.” Or this description of a rainstorm: “there were, at first, only two splats, the size of quarters, on the giant windshield and they trembled like things with a consciousness.” Over and over, the accumulation of detail builds a world that is alive and keenly observed. If it were not for the serious deficiencies in plot, this would be a very fine novel indeed.

Mark Frutkin’s most recent historical fiction is A Message for the Emperor (Véhicule, 2012), which takes place in Song Dynasty China. His novel Fabrizio’s Return (Knopf, 2006), set in 17th-century Italy, won the 2006 Trillium Award. He lives in Ottawa.