The KfC blog had a great time with the New Face of Fiction last year — four first novels, all quite good, one of which (Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall) made my year-end Best 10 list. This year’s NFoF features three novels: in addition to Nick Crowe’s, I will be reviewing Alexi Zentner’s Touch and Jamie Zeppa’s Every Time We Say Goodbye in the next few months. And yes if you stick with the blog there will be a NFoF contest once I have reviewed all three.
Let’s back up a bit. Canada does have a tradition of nurturing new authors and, since 1996, Random House has taken an active part with this program. In fact, that first year introduced us to Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Dionne Brand and Gail Anderson Dalgetz (links are here) — I’d say that is about as good a clean sweep as you can get.
But I don’t want to overlook the contribution that smaller publishers make in ensuring that new Canadian authors are given their chance. So let me digress for a bit to recognize Gaspereau Press who won the Giller last year with Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. And Biblioasis Press which published my 2010 favorite (and I urge you to look for it), Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, a short story collection that ranks with the best anywhere, anytime. Previous Giller shortlists have featured novels from Cormorant Books, Arsenal Pulp Press and Freehand Press. We have a lively publishing industry in Canada and should appreciate the contribution that all these publishers make to our reading pleasure.Nick Crowe’s employment history reads like the prototype of a first novelist: “Paperboy, dishwasher, psychiatric hospital janitor, laundry worker and guitar player before starting a career in television”. A Cold Night for Alligators is a reflection of that eclectic background, a coming of age story focused on a search for a missing brother. Crowe sets it up with a deliberately misleading opening — his narrator, 26-year-old Jasper, is headed home from his boring work at a Toronto insurance company, waiting in a downtown subway station:
I needed to make a break, switch things up, get going on a new path, fear and dread be damned. But in the meantime, I could wait to get home.
I needn’t have worried about getting home. Because at 6:15, as the train finally barrelled down the line toward the station, Ronnie Orsulak, having recognized me as the man-devil who would not change his five-dollar bill weeks earlier, walked up and pushed me off the platform and onto the tracks. I fell into the swell of approaching lights. There was a scream behind me, then a whole chorus of them, and then blackness.
A change was upon me whether I liked it or not.
Jasper survives that accident but the “change” that is upon him is one that moves him into his history, not his future. As he recovers, he becomes more and more entranced with what might have happened to his older brother, Coleman, who disappeared 10 years ago — on the eve of his parents’ decision to institutionalize him for psychiatric care.
A Cold Night for Alligators is about to become a “road” novel. The family had always vacationed in Florida and Jasper thinks that is where his brother is now. The subway accident having freed him from the insurance business, he is up to the search:
Interstate 75 is an arrow in flight; a projectile that wavers in its path southward, as though the wind has blown it off course in places along the way and forced it to meander. If you pick up the highway at the border in Windsor, Ontario, and head due south, beginning in Detroit, it will take you to the very tip of Florida, which to a kid born into a world of hockey and snow blowers was like a lost, magical world.
Growing up, I thought of I-75 as the road that never ended. Every summer, at the beginning of August, we’d pack the car up with suitcases, Styrofoam coolers, books and sun visors and head south. It was a three-day journey that began in the pre-dawn dark of Ontario and took us through the heartland of the United States and into the South. Michigan to Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and into Florida.
Okay, you go to Florida in mid-winter, not August — but a vacation is a vacation. And the family actually didn’t get to the tip of Florida — and neither does Jasper on this search. Their vacations took place on Sanibel Island in the Fort Myers-Naples area and that is where the narrator sets up his base in search of his brother.
We are given enough back story to realize that Coleman has a “gift” — he gets along with the alligators who are the denizens of the Everglades swamps between the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic. And Jasper is pretty sure that this is where his brother has set up shop. His aunt Val lives there, with Rolly Lee, a cracker of the first order, and he embarks on a search — aided and abetted by two buddies who are headed that way for a fishing derby.
All of this sets the stage for some low-life partying and violence. It is not a complicated plot by any means — indeed, the straight-forward way that Crowe tells his story is one of his strengths. For some reason, Florida swamp country seems to be on the fiction list this winter (Karen Russell’s Swamplandia is attracting a lot of attention), so put your boots on and trudge into the swamp.
A Cold Night for Alligators is a worthy first novel — it is not a great book but it is a very readable one. Crowe is a story-teller with clean, crisp prose that bodes well for future efforts. I have only been to Sanibel once but the novel did bring back memories. All in all, it is a very good start to another year of New Faces of Fiction.