There's an old writing maxim of unknown provenance that has been attributed to everyone from John Gardner to Dostoyevsky. According to this anonymous adage, there are only two types of story: Someone goes on a journey; and a stranger comes to town. The Extinction Club, the new novel by Commonwealth Prize-winner Jeffrey Moore, clearly offers both.
Fortysomething American trust-fund wastrel Nile Nightingale spontaneously flees a life of addiction and litigation in the United States and heads north into rural Quebec to start over. Shortly after his arrival, his midnight prowling has him witness the dumping of a half-murdered body into a bog. A med-school dropout and the son of a famous physician, the otherwise "failurist" Nile saves the life of 15-year-old Céleste Jonquères with some dental floss stitches and an improvised pharmacopia. Healing Céleste saves Nile's spirit, but not necessarily hers. While her health and their unlikely friendship improve, those who wanted her dead have an easy time tracking down the new stranger in town.
At its best, The Extinction Club is gripping and incisive. Moore often integrates the novel's philosophical inquiries into violence and predation with an undeniably dynamic plot. His is not another plotless Canadian novel, nor is it merely one gun-filled chase through the woods after another. These gun chases are punctuated with compelling ideas, such as precocious Céleste's theory that if penis enlargement became medically viable, violence, including violence toward animals, would decrease. Céleste also compellingly theorizes that Canada's various ministries devoted to wildlife are more in the business of making money from hunters and fishers than protecting species and habitat.
However, the same eco-consciousness that periodically helps raise this story beyond mere suspense also regularly burdens the novel and exacerbates other challenges with plausibility and empathy.
Several factors make these eco-politics - politics I largely share - fit poorly in a novel. First and foremost, Moore's animal-killing villain is a caricature of sadism, and therefore not anyone who can truly stir thoughts and feelings on the human interaction with animals. The torturous scenes of bear bile "milking" and live-animal cuisine replace the relevant quotidian cruelties and negligence of fast-food meat and hog-farm toxicity with extremes that can seem like exceptions, not norms. Moore's delivery of this material often feels essayistic, not novelistic. For example, Céleste's voice is lively for descriptions of her life, then data-heavy when, as she acknowledges, she "climbs up on a soapbox." Early on, she writes, "I'm nearly 15 but I feel like I got mileage on for 115." Later, however, her journal entries and dialogue become cumbrously didactic.
In addition to didacticism and caricatured villains, the novel is also too blessed by convenience. Nile has several handsome bags full of his father's money and generally buys his way out of trouble. How many of us can stroll into a bank and pay the asking price for a church? Where's the requisite narrative struggle?
Similarly, Céleste is a home-schooled child genius who's a little too forward with her homework. Yes, knowledge is beautiful, but fiction prefers a few powerful emotional insights and social truths to a steady stream of data (e.g., on hunting, animal habitat, church construction, etc.).
Moore also risks irresponsibility in having Céleste retail the highly contentious Pleistocene Overkill theory - that the mass die-off characterizing the end of the Pleistocene era was caused by the bloodlust of newly arrived Paelo-Indian hunters who killed for amusement. - as if it were gospel. Moore conveniently presents this highly contested theory as if it were fact.
Even a minor character in the novel is too expedient, magically transforming from loquacious comic relief into life-saving sniper.
The third quarter of a novel is the one to really watch. Does a novel steadily earn its climax or set off some distractions while sprinting for home? The mid-sized challenges in Nile's life resolve with one good-news phone call after another, while the major change he heads for feels surprising, not fulfilling. Lawsuit No. 1 is dropped. Then No. 2. The tween daughter he never contacts still pines for good ol' dad.
Moore's previous novels have been published internationally and optioned by significant film companies. His is a future worth watching, even if this novel is a mixed success.
Darryl Whetter's most recent book is the bike novel The Push & the Pull. He is at work on a second novel and a book of poems.