Waiting for Joe, by Sandra Birdsell


Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

While we meet Joe Beaudry and his wife Laurie ensconced in a mobile home on a Walmart parking lot in Regina, Saskatchewan, they are very much in transit. Born, raised and betrothed in Winnipeg, the two had evolved a comfortable, if financially over-extended, life. Joe owned the Happy Traveler, an RV dealership, and Laurie, a compulsive shopper, (over)spent the proceeds on home furnishings and her wardrobe. Then along came 9/11 and its security aftermath — the senior citizens who formerly wanted to travel (on the ground) and are the core RV market developed a taste for staying close to home.

Joe mortgaged his home and everything else to try to keep the business afloat. It didn’t work, so the Beaudry’s have experienced not just the loss of the business but also the family home that was given to him by his father. When we meet the couple, they’ve put father Alfred into a senior citizen’s residence. Joe has stolen (he would prefer to think borrowed without permission) an RV stored on his lot and the two are headed west and then north to Fort McMurray where a childhood friend has contacts and works in the oil sands business; perhaps they can start a new life. They don’t have quite enough money for gas to get there but Joe has found a job erecting the temporary garden centre at a nearby Canadian Tire store — spring is in the air.

Waiting for Joe is a Canadian road novel, a genre that comes in two varieties. One set involves the magnet pulling people to the cities (think Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce or Kathleen Winter’s Annabel). The other, including this novel, involves heading (perhaps fleeing would be a better word) west, or southwest, or northwest — Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, Miriam Toews’ The Flying Troutmans and even Elizabeth Hay’s Giller-winning Late Nights on Air would qualify as comparisons. While both sets involve a pursuit of opportunity, the first set usually involves chasing a dream, the latter escaping a disaster.

Joe is not really sure he is headed for Fort MacMurray — he might opt for Vancouver where Pastor Ken Lewis and his wife Maryanne (a couple who “saved” a teenage Joe from a life of crime in Winnipeg a few decades back) now reside. He calls Pastor Ken from the parking lot on his cellphone:

“I’ve lost my business.” Joe gets it out there before he can’t. I’ve lost the house, my father.

Lost, as though the Happy Traveler, his home, his dad, wandered off and he’s been unable to find them.

“Joe. Oh, no,” Maryanne says.

“How?” Pastor Ken jumps in to ask.

“It’s been coming for a while now. Last year business was really bad, but ever since 9/11, things haven’t been great.”

“People stopped travelling then,” Pastor Ken says.

“Yes.” Joe does not say that although he’d incorporated, when the business began to falter he’d taken out a mortgage on the house. The small property Laurie had inherited from her grandmother, along with a time-share in a townhouse in Tofino, had gone as collateral against his line of credit.

He does not say he’d driven past the entrance to the industrial park on some mornings to head out along the highway, his eyes following the zinging arc of the frost-silvered hydro wires as they dipped down and up from poles, driving out a bit farther each time. Sometimes he would pull over and sit for a moment before heading back, watch for the doe and her yearling to emerge from the scrub bush near the city dump.

So Joe has been prepping for his flight for some time. Indeed, as Birdsell fills in the back story, rehearsing all his life. That back story is a major part of the novel — Joe’s mother, we discover, died in an attempt to save Laurie’s mother when she jumped off a railway bridge into the river, with baby Laurie in her arms. Neither mother survived, the baby did.

I think it is fair to observe that “road” novels whose central characters are trying to flee a life of failure share the trait of having a lot of plot elements to keep them going, most of which are not explored in much depth. That is certainly true of Waiting for Joe — since those many elements are the strongest driver in the book, I will avoid spoiling it for potential readers by saying only that there are a number more which you can discover for yourself.

The result of all this, for this reader at least, was a novel that moved quickly and easily but which is unlikely to remain in memory for long. Joe’s life has been a series of searches for grounding, none of which were very successful — since he is the only real character in the book, that provides a scenario for exploring a lot of incidents, but they never really come together into a larger picture or character. He isn’t a dislikable or unsympathetic character; rather, he emerges as a pretty shallow one. The isolation that he maintains from all those around him is certainly portrayed by the author but that is not enough to carry the book.

Waiting for Joe is on the shortlist for the Governor-General’s award for fiction along with Emma Donohue’s controversial Room (which just won the Writers’ Trust Award), Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, Drew Hayden Taylor’s Motorcycles and Sweetgrass and Dianne Warren’s Cool Water — all of which are reviewed elsewhere on this site. For this reader, it is the weakest of the five, but that may be a reflection that I simply have read too many better novels from the genre. G-G juries, drawn from the writing community, often tend to produce some surprising results. My choice of the five would be Annabel but I could see any one of them getting the nod when the winner is announced Nov. 16.

7 Responses to “Waiting for Joe, by Sandra Birdsell”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    The mothers thing sounds a little contrived.

    I found the final paragraph in the quote a bit overweighted. As I got to the end of it I felt it was toppling slightly, unbalanced. Do you know what I mean at all?

    One of the things I find interesting about stories set in the West is that once you get there where is there left to flee to? The flight West is interesting, but in some ways for me personally the arrival is perhaps more so. That’s not a criticism of the book though, just a comment on what I’d find a little more intriguing.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I had a bit of a problem with things like the final para of the quote. While the book is driven by narrative, it periodically swoops off into lyrical language that doesn’t seem to fit.

    I also find arrival more interesting than flight — in fact Hay’s book is about the collection of flee-ers who have ended up at the radio station in Yellowknife and it would be my favorite of those I mentioned.

    As for what happens when you get there, for Wallace Stegner you keep on wandering around. Or write for Hollywood (Fante). Or solve crimes.


  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    You’ve not blogged the Hay have you? I just checked for it. Will you be writing it up?

    Love the last sentence Kevin, you’re absolutely right.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Sorry, I read the Hay a couple of years before I started blogging. I don’t have a reread planned — if I come across a good review I’ll let you know.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Here is a link to the NY Times review of Late Nights on Air — it is consistent with my thoughts, both positive and negative. Actually, reading it reminded me how much better the Hay is than Waiting for Joe.



  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks for that Kevin, I’ll take a look.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think you would find the Hay interesting — alas, I cannot recommend Birdsell.


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