Once in a rare while, someone who isn't disabled writes a book about disability that doesn't bring to mind Dr. Johnson's dog, the one that could walk on its hind legs. The surprise, the fat genius said, wasn't that it was done poorly, but that it was attempted at all.
The genre of the disability memoir is itself often crippled. Many such memoirs are written: most are dull and/or sanctimonious and/or sentimental and/or so politically correct they could mount their own precision marching teams. These are the memoirs about special children given to special parents, often by a special God (in which case God needs to revise his/her/their gift-giving practices).
Beyond these overly respectful issues of craft lies a bigger problem: how to write about a subject everyone is loathe to read? We're scared witless by the disabled. They remind us of our own fragility, that we have no control over how and when and where we shall ourselves fall and die. They make us uncomfortable – their need seems bottomless – and we often can't fix them.
That makes Craig Davidson's Precious Cargo an almost singular accomplishment – a work of non-fiction that's a pleasure to read, despite being about an able-bodied man who decides to hang out with disabled people.
The book's skillfulness shouldn't be a surprise. Toronto-born Davidson is an accomplished novelist: his most recent, Cataract City, was short-listed for the Giller prize while his first book of stories, Rust and Bone, became a harrowing Golden Globes-nominated film. He also writes thrillers and horror stories under a pair of pseudonyms. He knows how to kick a story along.
This one literally has wheels. Precious Cargo is a chronicle of the year Davidson operated a school bus for a group of handicapped children in suburban Calgary. Down on his luck as a writer, sans girlfriend, friends or meaningful work – he has been fired from a library for taking a pugnacious stand on watering a ficus that wasn't his bureaucratic responsibility – Davidson hires on as a bus driver, and a short bus, at that.
He is not enthusiastic about the prospect. He imagines bus drivers to be a species of loser, guys "whose teeth resembled a freeway pileup of tiny grey sedans." And he is "really uncomfortable around individuals with disabilities … Such encounters had felt like a door opening into a vast realm where I had no foothold, no understanding."
The gang of gentle adventurers who wind up his companions dissolve those assumptions. There's Vincent, a young giant with a speech impediment and intellectual disabilities but intergalactic knowledge of everything Star Wars; Vincent's pal Oliver, a smaller, more sociable but jittery middle schooler beset by Fragile X syndrome (intellectual delay, attention deficits, autistic behaviours); Nadja, a young East Indian girl with a love of pink and what appear to be mild cognitive deficits; Gavin, a non-verbal autistic boy who finds it difficult to look directly into anyone eyes, but who is as alert as a pointer to everyone's emotional state; and Jake, Davidson's clear favourite, a highly intelligent, charming, articulate but electric-wheelchair-bound 16-year-old seized by spastic quadriplegial cerebral palsy. The tragedy of Jake's condition has been deepened by his mother's death, four months before Davidson meets him, at the hand of a hit-and-run drunk driver (who still lives in the boy's neighbourhood). These are the characters who change Davidson's life, despite the fact that he's the one supposed to be helping them.
The interesting question is how that happens. Davidson feels the loneliness of his wards' lives, and is genuinely shaken by the able-bodied world's terrified callousness toward them. "The kids on my bus occupied the lowest rung on the food chain," Davidson writes, in his distinctive, Palahniuk-flavoured Tough Guy With a Brain prose – "so low, in fact, that most predators steered clear altogether. But some of the kids at their schools or in their neighbourhoods hadn't got the memo that reads: You don't hunt the easy meat."
Again and again, at least until he realizes it doesn't accomplish anything, he pulls his bus to the side of the road to climb out and confront children and adults who laugh at the "'tard bus" as it noses by. The children are bullied but never bully back, the slow grace of their incapacities having streamlined and ennobled their lives. They are nevertheless surprised, even impressed, that their able-bodied driver is so volatile and easily goaded. As Jake points out, from the clarifying vantage point of his wheelchair, anger rarely gets him anywhere. Turns out Craig Davidson has a wheelchair of his own – his temper.
Gradually, as he steers them to and from school each day, he absorbs the lessons they have on offer. Oliver, for instance, has the temerity (or naiveté) to try to fit in with his "normal" classmates. He wanders into their cliques and throws an arm around a would-be pal. They seldom take well to his crushingly vulnerable overtures: He is on the short bus, after all, the haunted ship of the strange Other. Davidson wonders why the disabled are segregated onto short buses in the first place. Surely if they rode regular buses with their aides, they would be accepted as part of the regular crowd?
But like many public goals of the official policy of inclusion (to this day it constitutes the main thrust of Canadian public policy toward the disabled), joining the normals is not something his charges always want. They're fully aware of their limitations, feel their difference keenly, and prefer their own bus, their own privacy, their own world, just like everyone else. To them, it is a world worth inhabiting all on its own.
"I wished for an inclusivity most of those kids didn't necessarily crave (or perhaps, with a maturity outstripping my own, one they understood wasn't feasible)," Davidson writes. "I fell into the trap of wanting to engineer their existence to match my own expectations." We keep trying to make the disabled as much like us as we can, in the belief that this is what they want. But maybe being like us (the people who keeping slagging each other on social media and arguing about Donald Trump) is not that appealing. Davidson's bus riders aren't so blinded by self-regard.
Cut off from doing much in this able-bodied world, they imagine much bigger and funnier ones that they invent incessantly en route. Davidson has a sharp ear for dialogue, and the conversations he has on the bus are the best parts of his book. Nadja likes to tell stories about her relatives:
"My uncle has two daughters, Craig? And they were flying in a plane over the mountains? And it was very nice … by the way they died."
"All of them, Nadja? In a plane?"
"When was this?"
"Actually, it was last week. Isn't it sad?"
Or there is her friend who has "a lot of children. Ten."
I said, "Ten kids? That is a lot."
Nadia amended this number. "Ten thousand."
"Ten thousand children?"
"Holy shit!" Oliver cried from the back of the bus.
"Hey," I warned him. "Language, buster."
"She has ten thousand kids," Nadja went on primly. "All girls."
What Davidson has on his hands, in other words, is a set of characters who create and fully occupy their own reality – a godsend for a writer. Davidson relies on that given a little too often: he recognizes the bus-driving gig as primo book material early on, and occasionally panders (albeit lightly) to his readers by skirting the darkest depths in a life of disability – the black isolation of the unspeaking, for instance, or the sexual frustrations of the crippled. (This will in no way prevent the movie rights to Precious Cargo being scooped up, as they should be.) What bothers Davidson instead is the randomness with which disability strikes its victims: fate left Jake in a wheelchair, and only a few unpredictable moments of oxygen depletion separate his demanding, cerebrally-palsied life from the author's.
But it is precisely by waking to "the persistence of chance and its amorality in human life," as the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley called it – the random strikes that cause congenital deformity and kill loved ones too soon – that we start down the path to a more humble, less assertive humanity. "The more alive we are to the chanced nature of our lot," Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel once wrote in a devastating little book called The Case Against Perfection, "the more reason we have to share our fate with others." Why? Because the membrane that separates the unfortunate from the rest of us is thin and permeable, and reminds us of the contingency of our gifts, and therefore of the continuing connection between the fragile and the rest of us. None of us entirely deserves what we get, good or bad (as Barack Obama once said to Mitt Romney to enormous fury: many masters of the universe felt insulted by the suggestion that they didn't get where they were all on their own).
Davidson prefers less political language. "We feel sorry for them, for how unlucky we sense they have been, and that sorrow is tinged with guilt about our own dumbshit luck." But guilt is pointless: The best response is to be brave, take a chance, wade in and be their pal. We keep boasting about the medical miracles we can perform, but what the disabled want first and foremost is companionship, a friend to love. You don't have to be a hero to hand that out.
Eventually – almost too inevitably – as the wheels of the bus go round and round, the miracle occurs: The kids on the short bus cease to be disabled cargo for their driver, and become simply "kids, same as any other kids." He stops seeing them as they are supposed to be, as what they are not, and accepts them for who they are – broken humans, like the rest of us, who have a contribution to make, however subtle and eccentric that contribution may be. From the bus, they all – driver and charges alike – gaze in awe at the shining Rocky Mountains on Calgary's horizon, a collective experience, Davidson claims, that renders them all "elementarily human."
Which is another way of saying it makes them his equals. But more importantly it makes Davidson their equal – a modest fellow fragile who can finally shun the back-breaking hod of expectations we all carry around with us, and instead be a mere companion, a beautiful loser full of gorgeous flaws. Our imperfection is our grace.
Interspersed through Precious Cargo every couple of chapters are excerpts from an unpublished novel Davidson wrote while he was driving the bus. The novel is called The Seekers, and features a band of superhero types with animal names who decide to travel through time. The novelized bits, of course, are a metaphor for the power the disabled have to transform mere human beings, if we let them, for the mysterious way their fragility gives them a universal strength all of us can hang from. But in the end, Davidson decided to make his book a true story, something that actually happened, and not just a fantasy. Just as well.
Ian Brown is a features writer with The Globe and Mail and author of, most recently, Sixty, a finalist for the RBC Taylor Prize.