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The Motorcyclist

by George Elliott Clarke

“This novel is neither biography nor history,” explains George Elliott Clarke at the outset of The Motorcyclist.

bk-MotorcyclistOn one level, the explanations contained in this brief introduction (actually, “Proviso”) are a matter of going on the record. In freely adapting the personal diaries of his late father, William Lloyd Clarke – written in the year of the author’s conception – the former poet laureate of Toronto has indulged in his share of speculation, interpretation, and outright fabrication. But he’s also guiding the reader toward the kind of bifocal lens required to fully perceive his work, to see it simultaneously as biography and history, with both perspectives in play at once – the metafictional equivalent of 3-D.

Certainly, the characters and situations pop off the page: Clarke’s imagery is always hot and tactile, in line with his protagonist’s desire to touch – and hold and ravish – almost every aspect of his environment. Set in Nova Scotia at the end of the 1950s, The Motorcyclist sketches the East Coast as a network of highways connecting burgeoning cities and static small towns, all traversed by Carl Black on his trusty BMW bike. Like his contemporary, Jack Kerouac – one of dozens of authors name-checked in Clarke’s text – Carl has a yen to be on the road, but he exists in a different, if contemporaneous, context to the beats; he’s a blue-collar black man in a city situated atop a racial fault line nearly as fragile and volatile as the ones buried somewhere in the south.

As a book that takes Canada to task for its own legacies of anti-black prejudice, The Motorcyclist is scathing: Carl has to shift between personas depending on what kind of white person he’s interacting with at any given moment. This discomfort creates a context for his rather rapacious pursuit of white women, whose sexual attentions he frames as a kind of victory – although his desire doesn’t discriminate. In lieu of a plot, Clarke offers up a series of linked vignettes in which Carl chases, and almost always successfully seduces, girls of different races and classes with a sensual enthusiasm that borders on the pathological.

This disturbing fervour is communicated through a literary style that’s at once plangent and trickily sophisticated. We are always inside Carl’s mind and yet simultaneously outside of him (there’s that dual vision again). In passage after passage, Clarke grants us access to his hero’s thoughts, which are often more rhetorically and linguistically complex than his actual utterances (dialogue is kept to a minimum). A fevered thinker, Carl often privately capitalizes and italicizes quotidian words and concepts, like Lust and Violence, so they pass from conversational commonplaces to Platonic concepts.

And yet it would be incorrect to say that The Motorcyclist is simply an exercise in first-person point of view. Instead, Clarke spikes his prose with references and allusions to figures and events beyond Carl’s experience, not only intellectually but also temporally: he invokes Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, neither of whose keynote cultural addresses had even been delivered at the time of the story. By imposing his own 20/20 hindsight on a character who refuses to see past his own immediate future – i.e. his night-to-night gratification – Clarke injects some unexpected tension into what might have otherwise been a simple picaresque.

There are other surprising and effective choices, like extending the same interiority afforded Carl to the women he glances off, almost all of whom are given shadings and sympathies beyond the Madonna/whore binary in which he tries to locate them. The politically correct move would be to chastise Carl for his possessive, dismissive, and at times subjugative behaviour, but The Motorcyclist does something more interesting, observing it as by-product of a particular moment while suggesting Carl’s attitude is hardly unique to his time and place. For all the ways Carl appears as a retrograde figure, he’s also an avatar of progress – not only in his insistence on being taken seriously as a thinker, but also through the literal mobility of his vehicle. The velocity of his peregrinations through Halifax marks him as a man trying to outpace his reality – a positively existential situation.

As a work of imagination, The Motorcyclist is finely drawn, but it also operates as a work of self-portraiture. By scribbling in the margins of the elder Clarke’s consciousness, the author is setting the primal scene of his own poetic compulsions as surely as the events that led to his physical birth.

This ribald, raw, road-movie of a novel is an object lesson in how to combine the political with the personal; if the title wasn’t already taken, Clarke could easily have called the novel Dreams of My Father.