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Porcupines and China Dolls

by Robert Alexie

Any author that begins a novel with a man standing on a lonely highway with the business end of a rifle in his mouth has got his work cut out for him. The challenge is twofold: how not to scare readers away from what they know will be a rough ride into a dark fictional universe; and how to keep up the momentum after such a gutsy opener.

First-time author Robert Alexie is up to the task. The man on the highway is James Nathan, and this isn’t his first flirtation with suicide and it won’t be his last. James and his best friend Jake are two of the porcupines of the title, native children who were forced into residential schools where, as the precursor to countless indignities and violations, they were stripped and shorn of their long hair, emerging as bristly-headed identical porcupines. The novel focuses on a few weeks in their adult lives in a ravaged Northern community as they struggle to escape the cycles of alcoholism and abuse.

It’s all very heavy stuff, and Alexie, himself a survivor of the residential school system, doesn’t shy away from his material. The narrative path is littered with suicides, murder, sexual abuse, and addiction, and Alexie doesn’t let the reader off the hook with cathartic melodrama or unearned emotional redemption. He writes in a minimalist, repetitive style consisting mostly of short declarative sentences and rapid-fire dialogue, casting an incantory, almost numbing spell on the reader.

Amazingly enough, much of the action and dialogue is hilarious. An extended scene of a drinking binge rivals Charles Bukowski for pathos and deadpan humour as James “time travels” between blackouts and tries to keep up his end of multiple verbal sparring sessions with his fellow alcoholics. The novel’s most moving scene occurs in the town’s community centre, as the victims of the residential school come forward to finally name the crimes that were perpetrated upon them. As they slowly gather courage in the telling, the victims are transformed into the warrior heroes of legend. Here Alexie varies the narrative voice, moving freely between the heroic exaggeration of the traditional storyteller and the burlesque of the bingo-hall gossip.

The repetitive style occasionally feels less like a component in a narrative strategy than patches of authorial laziness, but Porcupines and China Dolls more than delivers on its compelling opening.