From the very first paragraph of The Sleeping Car Porter, Suzette Mayr mesmerizes her reader with a narrative thrust forward and lyricism that lingers: “9:45 p.m. Standing next to his step box, Baxter hovers: immobile and elastic, ready to spring forward to lift a suitcase, dissect a timetable, point to the conductor, nod, lift more suitcases, now hat boxes, answer more questions, and nod, nod, nod.” This precise moment gives way to the larger year, 1929, on the verge of the Great Depression with its share of suffering around railways. That the protagonist Baxter is 29 years old points to his overlapping with the twentieth century; and, indeed, Mayr’s historical novel, based on extensive research, offers a slice of the century in an unforgettable train ride across Canada. The dynamic rhythm of the prose describing Baxter’s stasis and motion parallels the throbbing systole and diastole of the train and rails throughout the novel. The last sentence of the paragraph repeats the sibilance of steam whistles: “A sea swell of passengers, spilling toward his car; a maelstrom of departure-time panic.”
Aside from her poetic prose, the novel teems with several memorable minor characters, who are caricatured to add humour to the pathos surrounding the porter’s life. The step box is an intermediate space between the station’s platform and the interior of the train which is itself a liminal stage for the theatrics of fiction. Baxter’s step box highlights the realities of shoe shining that preoccupies the porter whose dream of becoming a dentist keeps him going under difficult circumstances. He hovers between shoes and teeth, extracting meaning from multiple sources. Always drowsy from a lack of sleep and nourishment, Baxter sleepwalks, dreams, and carries on across Canada. The porter’s and passengers’ rites of passage begin even before they board, for the first section, “Before,” is preceded by two epigraphs.
The first is a 1925 poem by Langston Hughes: “I loved my friend. / He went away from me.” This sense of departure is echoed in the second epigraph from Fred Wah’s Waiting for Saskatchewan (1985): “As the train pulls into a station in the early evening / darkness you disappear.” Leaving and disappearing are two of the many themes in The Sleeping Car Porter, which is both moveable feast and famine. Baxter leaves his impoverished Caribbean island for Canada in the hopes of finding a better life as a dentist. Lovers leave him and other characters on the train. What disappears in history – mainly the stories of Blacks and homosexuals in 1929 – reappears in Mayr’s highly charged writing. The barriers between White and Black appear and disappear through the protagonist’s weary eyes, propped up by an omniscient narrator and a train that comes to life, levelling and laughing with each incident.
Both the title and the protagonist’s name carry double meanings. “He’s a sleepy car porter. Ha ha. That’s a dandy!” in the “Before” section that develops later in the journey: “Baxter is a sleeping car porter. A sleepy car porter. A sleepy porter he is car. Car sleepy. Porter. Sleeping.” Language, character, and setting coalesce around R.T. Baxter, an arty porter with a back stir, who is referred to in a demeaning way by others as George, Boy, and Martian. He takes his revenge by inventing names for the other characters – Punch and Judy, Blancmange, Pulp and Paper, Mango the Optician, the Spider, Freckles, and the conductor Mad Mary Magruder. There is a Dickensian atmosphere in the picaresque adventures on the Pullman and in the humorous caricatures. When one of the porters jokes that “Charles Dickens ain’t either,” we know that Mayr is writing through her precursor. Other authors and mysteries are stowed on board the fastest train across the continent.
Michel Foucault’s analysis of trains applies precisely to Mayr’s novel: “a train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by.” Mayr offers the reader an extraordinary bundle of relations among characters and trans-Canadian locomotion. Car and porter are inseparable: “Even when he stands still, he moves. Baxter flickers everywhere and nowhere. A blink in a shuddering train window.” Language fuses car and character: “if he stays on track …. hoping sleep will track him down.” The narrator shuttles between lines and lives: “When he’s sat back down … he flips back and forth through the pages …. now he’s back on track …. The train rumbles over the tracks …. shooting backward in time …. Baxter bangs back.” Mayr trains her thought carefully and rails against racial injustice; her Otherness occupies Foucault’s “other space.”
Encumbered by the burden of the past and dreams of a dental future, Baxter also carries a little girl, Esme, who clings to him wherever he goes. She, in turn, carries a porcelain horse, Rocky, with one of its ears clipped. He entertains Esme-remora, a small parasitic fish, with stories from The Scarab from Jupiter, a “scientifiction” about an Egyptologist plagued by beetles. Science fiction is one mode of escape from the train’s luxurious prison; the other is his memory of his tropical childhood with Aunt Arimenta, with whom he shared his reading of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He dreams of becoming Captain Nemo and travelling far away, yet Nemo means nobody, which is part of his own invisible identity. Attached to Nemo is the phrase “mobilis in mobili,” moving in a moving thing – the porter in the car, books within books. From Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to Saturn and Jupiter, Mayr provides a vertical escape genre to balance her horizontal locomotion.
If “figmentals” afford one means of escape from Baxter’s ordeals, then comic relief provides another. “Mother and daughter Tupper trip off to dinner, Mrs. Tupper swathed in satin, trailing a sulphurous wind she breaks as she passes by him.” The author’s synaesthetic ear sniffs the sibilance and alternating “t” sounds. Straight out of Swift and Pope, this satire is reinforced by the interconnection of car and character: “Rotten people. Rotten train…. Steam hisses and breaks squeal.” The pathos of Baxter blackening shoes is offset by the humour of flatulence and caricature. He is a clicking Robot, a whirring automaton. “Click click click. Boy boy boy. Clickety click. He is an automaton click click clicking hands clicking teeth clicking feet click click click…. He is a clicking George clicking.” The sounds of the rails, the keyboard, and Buster Keaton are evoked in Baxter’s apprenticeship.
In his pocket he conceals a folded postcard of two naked men. This is but one example of passion and repression that courses through the novel with its hidden trysts and turns in compartments. Writers’ identities are hidden and revealed during the journey. The Spider holds a séance to probe the dead spirits; Mad Mary has his own traumatic past from the Great War. The caricatures in the car are haunted, which lends a poignancy to the entire historical fiction. Baxter relies on tips to get him to dental school. After so many hardships the novel ends on an upbeat note: “Baxter gallops, the kite in his arms…. Baxter lets go.” Released from the bondage of baggage, he awakens to the heights and freedom of kites. From the wounded porcelain horse to the final gallop, the porter flies on a shoestring and carries hope into the future.
Small wonder that Mayr won the Giller.
Suzette Mayr is the author of the novels Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Monoceros, Moon Honey, The Widows, and Venous Hum. The Widows was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book in the Canada-Caribbean region, and has been translated into German. Moon Honey was shortlisted for the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Best First Book and Best Novel Awards. Monoceros won the ReLit Award, the City of Calgary W. O. Mitchell BookPrize, was longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize, and shortlisted for a Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, and the Georges Bugnet Award for Fiction. She and her partner live in a house in Calgary close to a park teeming with coyotes.
St. John's was a visceral shock to them. In a hansom cab, on their way…
. . . sure to resonate with nature lovers, particularly those who appreciate the beauty…