On Mahogany and Blacktop
A review of The Motorcyclist, by George Elliott Clarke
It is not a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a motorcycle must be in want of a wife, and yet Carlyle Black, protagonist of George Elliott Clarke’s new novel, spends a good deal of time in pursuit of one. Although it opens with musings on the hard truths of pavement and the allure of the open road, The Motorcyclist is essentially the story of courtship, a reflection on “Race and Romance in an era when Chance governed family planning and Prejudice determined social status.”
Clarke notes in his introduction that Carl’s story was inspired in part by his father’s diary, but The Motorcyclist, with its dense, rich layers of social commentary, historical allusions and compulsive wordplay, transcends family history. Although the storyline follows a year in Carl’s life, the narrator cuts in frequently, situating the race relations, class lines and sexual mores of 1959 Nova Scotia in their larger cultural and historical context. Occasionally these connections feel as if the author was working from a list of newspaper headlines, but beyond the forced references to the erosion of the gold standard and the In Cold Blood murders, the narrator helps us see not only the bigger social and political picture but also Carl’s own limitations and blind spots.
In addition to his BMW motorcycle, mischievously named Liz II, Carl has a grade ten education, a secure job with the railroad, an extraordinary vocabulary and some artistic talent. At 24, his future is a series of questions. But as “a Coloured man trying to negotiate a white world that wants him to be a safe, smiling servant, and black women who want him to be a respectable husband and a responsible father, raising clean children in a paid-off house,” Carl must question all his desires. What if he wants to be an artist? (Yes, but who makes a living off art?) What if he wants to ride his motorcycle and sleep with as many women as he can? (Yes, but how long before this freedom triggers its own demise in the form of paternity, making him “merely middle class, married, monogamous, and mortgaged”?) What if he wants to marry a white woman? (Well, it is Nova Scotia, so he has that right, and the right, he notes, to face disgust if he does.)
Although he wants to see himself as a subversive, “as Trotsky with mahogany skin and Brylcreemed hair,” he has been raised by his single mother to aspire to a higher place in the system, not to overthrow it. If art will not free him from the “shackles of class oppression,” a good marriage will have to.
For each character, courtship is a combination of “sombre economics and foolhardy gambling,” a ticket to ride up and out of one’s station and class, or a terrible miscalculation. Thus we follow Carl as he pursues four women, calculating his chances, contemplating his desires. Marina, a nursing student, is at the top of his list, not only because of her middle class aspirations, but also because she refuses to sleep with him, which (it is 1959) makes her virtuous in his eyes. At the opposite end is Muriel, whose job as a maid and whose active sex life mean that she cannot “demand the simple-simple Respect that Marina, a bourgeoisie-bound nurse, expects.”
In between Marina and Muriel are Laura, a “Negro cum Micmac mix,” and Avril, a white American nursing student at Dalhousie University. Carl’s desire for Avril is overshadowed by the history of American lynchings and shootings and bodies dumped in rivers. But the violence is not just in the United States, and not just in the headlines (“Negro Faces Noose for Shotgun Slaying of White Husband”), and not just the consequence of “inter-racial hanky-panky.” Carl sees it everywhere, in bombs and bullets and “the sign language of fists,” in strangers and neighbours and husbands and fathers. He wonders, “How does a Coloured boy—man—get to feel safe and free enough to Love? … That his too-free kisses don’t put a lynch noose about his neck (if he’s caught neckin with the wrong shade of gal); or that his gentleness doesn’t send his uncorrected sons to gaol or the gallows? Hard to give Love when you must police all that you do. Dilemmas to stump Plato, let alone Carl.”
More worrying to Carl is the risk of pregnancy: he does not want to be “hog-tied to an unlettered maid.” More worrying—although “he’d prefer not to worry.” Carl knows he is gambling, but even after a close call (a miscarriage), he continues on as usual: “Love, Love, his blood sings. Not yet, not yet, his brain broods.”
When we hear from the women, unfiltered through Carl, we are not surprised to learn that Marina thinks of Carl as fun but not a long-term prospect, and that when “Muriel calculates her marital prospects,” Carl is at the bottom of her list too. And since our narrator is not hog-tied to our protagonist, I would have liked to hear from these women more often. Their voices would have mitigated some of Carl’s thoughtless sexism—for example, when “blubbering” is used to describe the trauma of one woman brutally beaten by her husband, and another pregnant and abandoned by her suitor. Or when Carl finds out that he has become a father and seems impressed that the mother has not contacted him: “To the mother’s credit, she has not tried to trap Carl, but has been eager to leave him free, while she gets on with her own life. Carl thinks, She’s quite the girl—obviously.” Even his acknowledgement that they—he and the women—are all playing the same game of Russian roulette—does not allow Carl to question the use of that word “trap,” to see that a less affluent young woman with a less understanding family would not have been at liberty to “leave him free.”
Carl treats his women according to his calculations—taking Marina but not Muriel to the movies, for example—but reacts with sulky anger to find himself treated according to theirs—when Muriel turns him away, when Marina pursues a Grenadian medical student. But it is in the wake of these rejections that he begins to see through his own hypocrisy. He sees shadows of his own “long-gone Carib father” in his rivals and in himself. He realizes he has been unfair to his mother, a minister’s daughter with an “unruly heart” and the ability to “backtalk in five languages,” who raised her five boys by five different fathers in a barn and whose life has been a struggle to love freely and to freely be.
George Elliott Clarke, the author of a verse novel, two verse plays and much verse, and our current Parliamentary Poet Laureate, is an extraordinary wordsmith, and so it is no surprise that his prose is often glorious: snow and soot get miscegenated, houses are “no better than dressed-up kindling or painted-over splinters,” a suit is “dollar bills repurposed into silk.” For me, the narrative sometimes strained under the weight of linked-together-neologisms and unworthy puns: “Avril’s April-albescent face” and “Ervin’s October-ochre chin,” “ice-picked-on Trotsky.” But this is a matter of preference. When told that Carl’s “steady dream is to jump up and down on Liz II, to tread down and throttle his palimpsest queen (quean), and slick swift outta any trap,” some readers will wish that the narrative had throttled down and “slick-swifted” outta more traps more often. Others will be