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book review

George Elliott Clarke’s the Motorcyclist is based on his late father’s memoirs.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes a motorcycle is just a motorcycle. But that's not the case in George Elliott Clarke's new novel, The Motorcyclist, based on his late father's memoirs detailing his sexual exploits in racially divided 1959 Halifax.

In spring, when 24-year-old Carlyle Black (a.k.a. Carl), "sheathed" in black leather, wheels his purple-and-chrome BMW R69 – named Liz II for the Queen in "an act of sweet, beatnik Irony" – down the driveway, he's "like a groom takin' his bride down the aisle."

Marriage, however, isn't exactly what's on Carl's mind. Astride Liz II, he "feels erect, like a gunfighter in full gallop"; "His manhood too, even at rest, is cocked." The very wind into which Carl rides "touches intimately, even whistling about your crotch, for no denim or leather can resist its fluid penetration."

Not to read too much into things, but you could say that Carl's relationship with his bike has a sexual aspect. Liz II enables his tom-catting both by attracting women and getting him to the sometimes-distant places where they are, quickly. Any woman who wants to straddle his bike, Carl reasons, will want to straddle him.

The directness is refreshing, even if Clarke's imagery sometimes misses its target. A description of a traffic jam being "as long and as hard to sit through as a pregnancy," outwardly dovetails with the bike as reproductive impulse, but sense-wise it's a falter: Carl hasn't sat through any pregnancies, and the birth of the child he will have – the book's own author – occurs unbeknownst to him. And it's also true that, if one of Carl's five girlfriends had a pregnancy, he wouldn't be the one, technically speaking, sitting through it.

Though The Motorcyclist is in many ways a celebration of Clarke's father – a suave, self-taught intellectual and artist who, like so many Canadian black men at the time, ended up working for the railway – Clarke is sensitive to the pitfalls of making his dad's "immaculate macho" womanizing appear heroic. Much of the novel's early parts are thus spent contextualizing Carl's rakish ways, or as it's phrased in the prologue: "the quandaries of courtship pertinent to a Cold War generation," within the Bermuda triangle of race, class and history. He does this so effectively that by novel's end, the terms are virtually interchangeable.

"Love" being, in Carl's world, "a combo of sombre economics and foolhardy gambling," he assesses each of his potential conquests according to a trading-card-like list of strengths and weaknesses. Mercurial, "magnet-black" Muriel happily invites him back to her Africville rooming house, but the relationship isn't going to get beyond sex: Carl won't "settle" for a scullion (who also might be a lesbian). Pious, coffee-coloured Marina, on the other hand, has made a vow of chastity, but her nursing studies have her destined for the middle class.

Moving along the colour spectrum, flighty Laura is a teacher-trainee with a limp, her pale exterior hiding Micmac/black heritage, while Liz, who in junior high was the white Head Girl to Carl's black Head Boy, seems unattainable (or is she?). Then there's Muriel's "colour-and-class opposite," and Avril from Mississippi, who, now freed from her "KKK fairy tale," is actively looking to satisfy her curiosity about black men. The problem for Carl is that she'll take an American over an "island negro" because the latter's "psychological health does not require seduction of white women."

The permutations are endless, quantum. The sexual potency of Carl's BMW can be trumped by another set of initials: BWI – the British West Indians local black girls prefer for their superior educational credentials. (Playing with, and subverting, acronyms is one of Carl's habits: NATO is "Negro Americans Take Over"; PhD "penis hard and deep"; CNR the "Canadian Negro Railway.")

Status has proved a fluid concept in Carl's immediate family history, too. His Caribbean father was a sailor he never met. His homely, book-smart mother, Victoria, had five children by different fathers, a crime her high-ranking Baptist-pastor father made her pay for by installing her in the barn behind his mansion to work as a laundress for sailors and prostitutes. Later, when she marries the province's highest-ranking black railway boss – whom Carl resents but must abide since he gave him a job – the union is mutually status-raising.

Halifax here is "a frosty, salt-spray South" whose racial divide is marked by Citadel Hill, an actual fort, which sits along a mock-industrial-heroic skyline: "At the water's edge, Halifax feels like Istanbul: Dartmouth's minaret is the Imperoyal gas flare." But it's also "Babylon on the Atlantic," a sensual place where the olfactory dominates the visual: mackerel vying with chocolate; diesel with salt; tobacco with beer, fish and bread.

As the above might suggest, Clarke, who's currently serving as Canada's poet laureate, hasn't let the demands of novelistic sprawl hamper his poet's sensibility. Rich, dense and syntactically serpentine, The Motorcyclist resists consumption in large doses. Consequentially, the straightforward but vivid staccato of Carl's "Trip Diary" of New York and the United States eastern seaboard, which happens around the middle of the book, feels like a welcome breather.

Clarke's linguistic introversions, his endless wordplay, might thwart our usual reading pace, but this also seems part of the point: In a book, and a world, where the sexual is the political, where shades of skin are shades of meaning, and where the motorcycle season is the de facto mating season, it's not a bad thing to slow down and take your time.

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries.

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