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book review

Russell Wangersky

"Western culture has a nasty obsession with the murder of women," Madeleine Davies writes in a recent post on Jezebel, citing such programs as Law and Order: SVU and American Horror Story, as well as the flourishing Jack-the-Ripper industry. Analyzing the latter for the New Republic, Katie Engelhart calls it an "entertainment enterprise" in which the killer attains mythic status while we hear little of the victims. It's the pervasiveness of this commodification of female suffering that makes Giller Prize-nominated author Russell Wangersky's novel Walt, billed a "psychological thriller," seem instantly familiar.

The story is mainly told from the perspective of a middle-aged grocery store janitor, apparently abandoned by his now-missing wife, who collects discarded grocery lists (some conveniently scribbled on cancelled cheques or bills) and obsesses about women who have dropped them. Though Walt's speculations can be mildly diverting, there are no thrills here: by page three, when Walt asks a co-worker where the author of one list (Alisha, whose Facebook page he haunts, but whom he's never spoken to) lives, we know he is a stalker. By the time we read the first section of a parallel third-person narrative about a police detective named Hill, we suspect that Walt is a rapist, and perhaps a killer. All there is to do is wait for the victims to show up.

This is a boring exercise, made more so by the author's rejection of plot twists: when Walt picks up a hitchhiker, he drives around with her; despite his attempts to highlight the ambiguity of her fate, we know how the journey ends.

The characters are wildly inept. Shortly after police signal to Walt that they know he has been stalking Alisha and are monitoring his movements, he shows up at her house. He meets his match in Detectives Hill and Scoville, for whom DNA evidence does not seem to exist: when a trio of sexual assaults occur, the detectives pin the crimes on a jailbird they know, without investigation. These and many other plausibility issues contribute to the reader's attention being among Walt's murder victims.

Notwithstanding its failures as a "thriller," Walt does "creep us out," to use Alisha's favoured expression. Walt is sometimes poetic in his voyeurism and compares it to birdwatching. Walt fantasizes, like any male, about Alisha's legs and an uptight neighbour's sexuality. Walt muses sensitively about life, death, nature, and his relationship with his wife ("I always felt like a cork in an ocean in that marriage"); the erosion of the latter appears to trigger his late-blooming criminal spree. Detective Hill's life is made to mirror Walt's in certain respects: his marriage has crumbled, partly due to his inability to communicate; he secretly watches his wife's new residence; he speculates that he can sometimes "understand why it is that wives get beaten." But the reader never forgets how aberrant Walt's stalking and other behaviours are, and his folksy ruminations seem like smokescreens. The author's efforts to link his perspective to those of average men, though their intention may have been to cast doubt on Walt's guilt and drum up suspense, instead create the impression that the text is an apologia for male harassment and violence.

Compounding this is the fact that we do not get to know Walt's women. We only derive information about Walt's wife Mary from him, and he sketches her as calculating and unfaithful. We learn little about the young hitchhiker Walt picks up, who is drunk and falls asleep. "I know all about 'no means no,'" says Walt about her. "But she wasn't saying no. She wasn't saying anything." Worst is the rendition of Alisha, whose very brief, intermittent diary entries mainly articulate her growing terror, like those silent-film heroines whose role was to emote while tied to railroad tracks. The women in this book exist purely as objects of male desire and violence, reinforcing rather than subverting Walt's perspective. The reader can stalk them together with Walt while pretending to enjoy a harmless "thriller," for the story is packaged as a male rescue fantasy, with Walt pursued by the detectives; the women, however, remain tied the railroad tracks.

In recent years, there has been much discussion about the "white, heterosexual, male default" in North American literary milieus. There's a parallel between what Walt, as the offspring of such a default, represents and what it does to its women – for it is not merely that they do not have a voice, but that they are silenced. Released in a country where more than 50 per cent of women are victims of assault, in the midst of a national crisis on missing and murdered Indigenous women, Walt is a distasteful reminder of how covert and resilient our cultural misogyny is.