When Emily Schultz was a child, she learned that her grandfather moonlighted as a rum-runner during Prohibition. This, of course, came as a surprise; he was a machinist who lived in suburban Detroit and, in his later years, in Sarnia, Ont., where he spent his retirement playing golf with friends. He was "the kind of guy who kept his lawn trimmed," she says, not the kind of guy who smuggled hooch across the border.
"We were told not to talk about it," Schultz recalls, sitting in the back of a quiet restaurant during a visit to Toronto earlier this week. "He was ashamed of the fact that he'd been involved in these illegal activities.
"I have to assume that my grandfather didn't get into too much trouble, because they let him come across the border pretty quickly when he moved here," she clarifies. "Running booze – now, we can be nostalgic about it. But, at the time, it must have been a lot like dealing drugs. I'm sure there was violence that went along with it. I think, 'How bad was it?' If he was not proud of it, maybe there were very bad things."
Men Walking on Water, Schultz's mammoth new novel, which arrived in stores this week, is filled with very bad things. It's a novel rooted in family secrets, double identities and lies, set during the twilight of the Jazz Age and the last months of temperance, a time when bootlegging could earn a man a fortune or cost him his life.
It begins with a gang of smugglers, mostly working-class family men looking to make some extra coin, standing on the banks of the Detroit River. It is night, and it is cold, and the river is frozen solid. Well, not quite solid enough – two cars race across to Windsor to collect cases of whisky, but only one returns. Alfred Moss, a newlywed with a newborn at home, has crashed through the ice, taking the liquor and a chunk of cash with him into the freezing waters below.
Schultz describes what comes next as being like "a ripple in a pond," with the novel following the consequences of that ill-fated mission. Men Walking on Water, which begins in the final days of 1927 and ends with the first signs of the Great Depression, jumps between no less than 10 major characters, a group that includes con men, murderers, thieves, priests, hookers, teetotallers, widowers, addicts, assassins, cops and federal agents, most of whom live and work in Windsor and/or Detroit, and between the law and their own code.
"I'm a little bit sentimental," Schultz says. "I like movies like It's a Wonderful Life, where one life affects so many others. And that's what I wanted to do: Who were the people who knew this man that went through the ice?"
While she's quick to point out the book is "a flight of fancy," there is, in fact, an Alfred on Schultz's own family tree: her great-uncle, who was also involved in rum-running, and who also lost his life when his car broke through the ice while crossing the Detroit River on a similar errand.
"I looked at that river every day when I was in university," says Schultz, 42, who attended the University of Windsor in the mid-nineties. "The idea that he took a car out on thin ice and went through was really haunting."
Men Walking on Water has been haunting Schultz for much of her writing career. She began the book in the spring of 2009, on the day she received finished copies of her second novel, Heaven Is Small, about a recently deceased writer who gets a job working for a Harlequin-esque romance publisher in the afterlife. She wrote the opening paragraph, much as it appears now, and made it about 100 pages in before calling it quits. "I just wasn't ready," she says. Instead, she turned her attention to The Blondes, a darkly comedic thriller in which a virus transforms light-haired women into vicious killers. (The novel is currently in development with a major American television network.)
Clearly, her latest novel is a departure.
"There's no question this is a big leap forward, in terms of maturity and voice," says her long-time literary agent, Shaun Bradley. "If you look at her previous books, they all have an interesting – I hate to use the word 'fantastical,' but it's a slightly fantastical conceit. And then she spins a quite serious story off of that conceit. Men Walking on Water doesn't have that. It's almost like she had the confidence to finally just jump in and tell the story she wanted to tell."
"My work is strange," Schultz agrees. "It's surreal. And this book is not. But I think that there's a playfulness here that you also see in my other works, and I think that there are politics here that you also see in my other works. Even though I'm writing a historical [novel], I wanted to write it from where we are now, and not just be nostalgic for the past."
What's most striking, especially considering it's a book she's been writing, off and on, for the better part of the decade, is its timeliness. Men Walking on Water is a novel about the artifice of borders and the unfairness of laws – how people can be embraced by one country and be considered criminals in another, even if that country happens to be just across a river. (Her family, beyond its rum-running history, has an interesting relationship with the border, too: Schultz's father, who died while she was writing the novel, and to whom it's dedicated, came to Canada in 1970 after receiving orders to ship out to Vietnam. Born in 1974, Schultz was raised in Wallaceburg, Ont., basically a border town, attended university in Windsor, and, six years ago, moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lives with her husband, the writer Brian Joseph Davis, and their son.) At times, the novel almost reads like a commentary on the current political situation, a time in which the Canadian-American border is in the news on an almost daily basis.
Men Walking on Water ends with the opening of the Ambassador Bridge, and its architect looking at the structure linking the two countries. Writes Schultz: "He stood below, beholding the black arch of steel, the 1,850-foot suspended span, and the long lead-up too, which now connected two nations – one that was heading into a tailspin, and the other, foreign and stable, at least for the time being."