Review by Catherine Nutter
Coureurs De Bois starts off with the promise of great things. In a rapid-fire sequence of events, readers are introduced to a cluster of intriguing characters in the dark and seedy underworld of Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. What’s more, the opening is spiced with just a hint of magic realism and native Canadian spirituality. Who wouldn’t be curious to find out what happens when larger-than-life anti-hero Cobb, a part Mohawk, part Ojibwa ex-con, and William Tobe, a wet-behind-the-ears student of economics, come together as a result of Cobb’s dream and Will’s vision?
By the time it’s through, this first novel by Toronto writer Bruce MacDonald (not to be confused with the filmmaker Bruce McDonald) has become more gangsta than mystical. But if the reader can put up with its very macho sensibility, Coureur De Bois offers up a Tarantino-size serving of gritty realism and compelling action.
It opens with a dream sequence, in which Cobb, also known as Randall Seymour, enters into a contract with trickster figure Crow. Cobb is an underdog, wronged by the Queen’s law, and hunted down by the white man. Just when it seems that he has no hope, Crow swoops in to peck away the rope at Cobb’s neck, and release him from prison into the world with a mission.
Meanwhile, William Tobe is at university, studying economics. He suffers from a stomach ulcer, and goes on a fast, consuming only water, lemon, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. His fasting brings on a vision, and the fastidious future economist makes an itemized list of things he must find during his vision quest, including: a stream, a bright light, a crow, a crucifix, a black bear, a stone, and purple flowers.
The action cuts back to Cobb, who barges into his lawyer’s office and demands the twelve grand that Queen’s council Alexander Campbell has swindled from him during his unsuccessful defense at Cobb’s tax evasion trial.
“It’s all about money then?”
“Justice? What the fuck is that?”
“Right and Wrong.”
“Some tribes built longhouses and planted maize. Some raided the ones that planted maize because they hadn’t made their own contract with the earth. You’re just working for the tribe that raids, except you don’t do it shooting arrows from underneath a horse. You do it with math, accountants, actuaries, the illusion of authority.”
With Queen’s Council Alexander Campbell’s illusion of authority broken by Cobb’s lack of respect for the illusion, he is easy prey. He complies without protest when Cobb threatens his family with death if he doesn’t pony up the misbegotten cash.
MacDonald explores some juicy concepts, including the malignant origin of the tax system, cold hard cash as the measure of success, that the world is little more than a corporation, and the most valuable commodity of the future could quite possibly be oxygen itself.
But while he’s strong on ideas, I found myself wondering why I should care about his characters. I’m all for an underdog making his way in the world, but I wasn’t that keen on all the strong-arm logic necessary for these characters to get what they want. I was hoping for a little more poetic justice, and a little less smash ’em in the face with a rock style of victory.
I also felt a bit uncomfortable in a world where all the female characters existed to serve men in some way, from the waitresses, to the hookers, to the suicidal psych student who bears Cobb’s child. These women all seem willing to do whatever the men around them want, which is either anonymous sex without emotional attachment, or another cup of coffee. The possible exception is Dr. Irene Bluette, the psychiatrist who gets Will so stoned at a dinner party that he pukes, and then runs off into the night in a state of extreme agitation. I liked her.
The story spans a year in Parkdale. As it comes to a close, Cobb is in Costa Rica, planning a banana plantation on land purchased with the profits from tax-free cigarettes (as well as other sideline ventures) and Will is in Northern Ontario, where he finally sees the objects from his itemized list.
Neatly enough, while Cobb’s stated aim during his contractual obligation to Crow was to fuck anything that moved, Will’s vision quest culminates in his losing his virginity to a woman driving a truck full of flowers to market in Toronto. This unlikely union completes his list, as the unnamed woman just happens to have purple violets in the back of her truck. Maybe not a woman’s idea of romance, a chance meeting between two strangers on a deserted Northern Ontario road, but it definitely completes the circle.
Will, of course, is transfigured. “‘It was a vision by my interpretation,’ he said. ‘Love is the most basic human exchange.'”
And so it goes. A banana farm and a nameless lover. All is right with the world — or at least, the world as it’s experienced by some guys.