Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Last Crossing - fantastic read.

Some people follow Oprah and her book club religiously, reading the weird self-help books and inspirational stories and classics she chooses. I have read three books on Oprah's list. "Anna Karenina", Sidney Poitier's excellent autobiography "The Measure of a Man", and "The Road". I read Anna Karenina because a friend let me borrow it. It's one of those books that if I had purchased it myself, it would have sat on my book shelf for a long time before I got to it. Those 2,500-page books are daunting, and it takes me a while before I have steeled myself enough to tackle them. The Poitier book I picked up at Shoppers Drug Mart on a whim. And Cormac McCarthy's The Road came to me through a different book club. The Randall Moore book club. A club which has but two members, myself and Doc. A book club which is, as I understand, an offshoot of the dildo book club which meets at the Elmdale. You see, those guys at the Elmdale recommend a book to Randall. He purchases that book, and then if it is really good, he will lend it to me. I read it and then he passes it on to Doc. In return, Randall and Doc are the two lone members of the Eric The Intern movie-of-the-week club, which works basically the same, only with DVDs.

It is a fine co-operative system, and one from which Woody is excluded. Not because we don't like Woody, but because Woody does not read books. And apparently, he does not watch DVDs either, because he still has at least three (and possibly more) of my movies sitting around in his house that he has yet to watch. I would have thought he may have watched them by now, he HAS had two and a half years to do so. Should he return these things, we may consider him for membership in our small but influential hippy commune of books and movies. But as long as he hangs on to my movies, in particular my copy of Knocked Up, he will be barred from membership. Besides, anyone who has yet to see Knocked Up or A History Of Violence can't be part of a proper cultural hippy commune anyway.

The newest book Randall passed on to me was The Last Crossing, which is just a wonderful book by Canadian author Guy Vanderhaeghe. It tells the tale of the Gaunt family, a rich, aristocratic family in England in the late nineteenth century. There are three brothers, Addington the oldest, and twins named Charles and Simon. Simon goes on a sort of missionary pilgrimage to the Western U.S. and Canada, and disappears. Addington and Charles set out after him, to find him and bring him back to England for their father. Along the way, they meet dozens of colourful characters. Custis Straw, the town drunk and horse trader, Aloysius Dooley, a tavern owner, Lucy Stoveall, a pretty prairie woman whose husband has run off leaving her to care for her sister Madge, and the most interesting character in the book, Jerry Potts, who is half Blackfoot native and half white. Potts is hired on as the leader of the search party, because he is the only man who knows the land and the people well enough to find anything in the wilderness.

The Last Crossing tells it's story in both the first person, narrated by each of the characters in turn, and also in the third person, as though there is some entity that oversees the entire story. This is effective, because it lets us know how each character thinks about the events that occur differently than the others. Vanderhaeghe also adds to the story with back stories, some of which occur long before the action in the novel itself. This gives a lot of insight into the behaviour of the people we meet. Some brilliant flashbacks in here, especially Custis Straw remembering his part in the American civil war. There are many biblical references, especially Moses and the story of him leading his people out of Egypt and across the Red Sea. There are several battle scenes, not just the civil war scene but an impressive tale of a battle between Blackfoot and Cree warriors. And the book constantly ruminates on the nature of fathers and father figures. Jerry Potts has two sort-of fathers, neither of which is his actual dad. He has a melancholy yet powerful encounter with his own son near the end of the book. And the three Gaunt brothers are all affected in very different ways by the spectre of their own father, who is rarely seen in the book, but whose influence is felt and mentioned even all the way across the world.

There is no perfect character in The Last Crossing. Custis Straw, while admirable, is a drunk who can't let go of the woman he loves. Charles Gaunt, while mostly sensible and honest, is a push-over and lets his brother lead him around by the nose. Lucy Stoveall is smart and stalwart, but too single-minded in her pursuit of revenge. Even Simon Gaunt, the subject of the search, seems to be idealistic and straightfoward, but his "mission" to come to the west and convert the natives to Christianity is pretty misguided and self-important. And there are virtually no characters that are bad all the way through, although Addington Gaunt and Titus Kelso come awfully close. As the search party progresses, Addington Gaunt reminds me more and more of Richard Harris in Unforgiven. The kind of guy in the old west who is so full of himself and tells so many tall tales that he manages to get a biographer to follow him around and write down all of his exploits. In the Last Crossing, however, Addington is an even more sinister character than English Bob. His sickness is revealed early on, and goes far beyond ignoring the search for his brother in a desire to kill a grizzly bear.

I could not put down this book. I was about to close it for bed last night upon finishing a chapter, and right before the chapter ended, I clued in to what was going on, that perhaps what I had been led to believe was not true, and that something else was possible...and I had to read until I found out. In the end, I was three hours late for bed because I just stayed up finishing the novel. The Last Crossing is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. If Cormac McCarthy is the best author working today, then Guy Vanderhaeghe is close behind. Pick this book up! But give yourself some time - you will not be able to put it down. This is the kind of novel you see people reading in their cars during rush hour on the Queensway. And we don't want any more of that.

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