Thomas King is in the business of pointing out the awkwardness of all the years of tortured history between native people and non-native people. It's just been so wrong, so lacking in humanity and so tragic, that it seems the only way to enter it is through comedy.
The Back of the Turtle, his latest novel, contains a good dose of everything we enjoy the least in today's headlines. Gabriel Quinn is a scientist working for a company called Domidion, a hybrid between Monsanto and ExxonMobile. (When people occupied Wall Street, they had Domidion in mind: rich, superficial, destructive.) He disappears from the company's Toronto headquarters only to reappear on the other side of the country, on a beach in British Columbia, on the verge of committing suicide.
The plot of King's novel moves forward and backwards in time. We learn why Gabriel is so tortured by his past, why he chose this particular beach (the site of an environmental disaster that wiped out a native reserve) and whether Dorian Asher, the CEO of Domidion, who became wealthy by presiding over this and other disasters, will be punished.
Gabriel is not alone on the beach, Samaritan Bay. He encounters Mara, an indigenous artist; Sonny, a "poorly lit" young man who lives in the ruins of a travellers' motel; and Nicolas, a wise loner with a Scottish accent who runs the local hot springs. Like Gabriel, they live in the present but are constantly looking backwards.
Dorian, the novel's villain, is a different sort of creature. Incapable of regret, he treats the past, both corporate and personal, as if it demands a public relations strategy. It is there to be rewritten, not reflected upon:
"Athabasca River? Tragedy.
Oil extraction? National priority.
Safety protocols? The best in the industry.
Environmental damage? Minimal.
Legal liability? Unfortunate accident.
It was all a waste of time."
King tells The Back of the Turtle in alternating chapters. We witness the chemical spill on Samaritan Bay from five different points of view, for instance, and we enjoy a romantic evening in the hot springs from four characters' eyes and hearts. It's the source of the novel's greatest pleasures, but it's also the book's weakness: While we're keen to know what brought Gabriel and Mara to the bay, or whether if Dorian will manage to slip away from the media, it's tough to enter the consciousness of the poetically stricken Sonny, bumming around looking for salvage on the beach. We can't help but pick favourites.
The most human characters in the novel are Gabriel and Mara, and they're both terrific. Mara speaks in that flat-but-sassy dialogue that made King famous, both in his novels and on CBC Radio's Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour. Gabriel is her straight man. King has fun with Dorian, too, but it doesn't feel like he cares to know the CEO. The character has a few child-like fascinations, such as watches and suits, but King doesn't give him any contradictions. He feels like a psychopath or an alien, a new arrival to Planet Feelings. In King's last book, The Inconvenient Indian, an acclaimed work of non-fiction, King hilariously and devastatingly demonstrated how most everything we have read, seen, heard, and thought about Native people in North America is wrong – by design. The Dorians have written the histories. It's difficult to blame King for making a monster of him.
Canadians are just now realizing it isn't quite enough to go to heritage festivals and ethnic restaurants and to endlessly repeat the word "diversity." We don't know how to talk about racism and we don't know how to enter or share or even understand First Nations culture. We have failed. Yet, in The Back of the Turtle and all his fiction, King asks us to relax and enjoy ourselves. This is sad and serious business but we'll accomplish far more by smiling than by looking away. There are men and women like Dorian out there, and there has to be some way to resist their worst tendencies, but most of us are just regular people who can't help wanting to understand and help one another as we bumble along, naked, lovesick, lonely, dimly lit, heartbroken, something like happy. So why can't we get it right?
In the absence of any easy solutions, here is another novel by Thomas King we ought to read.
Todd Babiak's latest novel, Come Barbarians, was a Globe and Mail best book in 2013.