Ray Robertson has experimented with recent history in his fiction, chronicling the waning of Kerouac and the Beat dream in What Happened Later and examining the kaleidoscope of the late 1960s country-hippie milieu in Moody Food. In his new novel, however, the Toronto writer expands his historical reach with an exploration of the racial (and other) tensions of the second half of the 19th century. The results are mixed.
David is the story of David King, who was born a slave but was rescued by the intercession of Reverend William King, who bought the freedom of David and his mother and brought them to the Elgin settlement, a community of freed slaves near Chatham, Ontario. The narrative alternates between David’s coming of age, his struggles with racism and the religious rules of Reverend King’s community, and his middle years as a quasi-respectable underground tavern owner in the company of his lover and soulmate, Loretta, a former prostitute.
Robertson demonstrates a comfort with both the more outsize aspects of David’s life – including his career as a grave robber (which ends bloodily) – and its more intimate moments, such as his bonding with Loretta, who reads to him from foreign philosophy tomes.
Robertson has clearly done a significant amount of historical research for the novel, and the results are ample and immersive on the page. The research is somewhat undercut, however, by the language of the book. Too often, Robertson slips into what feels like current vernacular, with lines like, “The first time I saw Loretta naked, I thought: You could crack an egg on that stomach, you could fry it on that ass” and, “Of course, there was the matter of Loretta fucking other men for money.” In the context of the novel, these phrases jar the reader from the historicity, and from the narrative. It’s not a terminal issue, but it is problematic, distracting as it does from David’s otherwise impressive qualities.