For my birthday this year I received a generous voucher for Toronto’s largest secondhand bookstore, BMV. Of course, I went wild, buying up more bargains than any sane human should ever read. Feeling a bit guilty that everything I’d picked up was either European or by an American, I slinked over to the “Canadian Literature” section and spent a few minutes trying to find a text whose blurb excited me, fired me up. What I found was Michelle Winters’ 2016 novella, I Am A Truck, which both sounded – and [luckily] was – fucking amazing.
I Am A Truck is a short book set on the edge of the Anglophone/Francophone cultural barrier in Canada. The protagonists are Réjean and Agathe, a married Francophone couple who have moved into an Anglophone district and, over the course of a decade, become increasingly insular and self-contained as a result of their self-conscious linguistic isolation. The book, which bounces from present to past in sections labelled NOW and THEN, tracks the course of their relationship from when they were young, through to – then beyond – Réjean’s unexpected and mysterious disappearance.
In the “present”, we see Agathe struggle with life. She feels abandoned, she feels confused, especially as time passes and her husband’s disappearance continues to be unsolved. Agathe gets a job, makes a friend, discovers rock ‘n’ roll and grows as a person. Meanwhile, in the flashbacks, we discover her husband’s secret, which was an increasingly intense friendship with a young Chevrolet salesman who, in turn, has two secrets: not only are his feelings towards Réjean far from chaste, but he also prefers the cars manufactured by the Ford Motor Company. Scandalous!
After this friendship has been explored in the flashbacks, the salesman’s narrative continues past Réjean’s disappearance as his own grief – and his regret at never acting on his possibly-reciprocated attraction – tears his life apart.
Outside of this thruplet, Winters packs her short novel with an impressive array of memorable characters and settings: the jaded employees of a secondhand electronics store, a PTSDed former soldier who just wants to sing and – the most fun thread – an organised crime syndicate lead by a man who cares more about the cheese and wine he produces in his greenhouses and barns than he does about the more standard revenue streams of people in his line of business.
There is silliness here, but there is also humanity. The plot is raucous and unexpected, twisty-and-turny in a satisfying manner: as I read I was unable to anticipate how it would unfold and, in a novella as plot-heavy as I Am A Truck, that’s impressive.
The reason why, perhaps, is that each unexpected and slightly-larger-than-life figure who Winters introduces is delightfully rendered. As a reader, we feel these lonely salesmen, these ambitious former cheerleaders learning to programme computers, these isolated woodsmen, these connoisseurs of fine wine and fine cheese forced (due to unnamed past sins) to produce their gourmet products not in the warmth of the Mediterranean but in the freezing North of Canada…
It’s great, and there’s a pleasantly vague eightiesish [chronological] setting, too.
It’s snappy, it bounces along, it’s witty without being unserious, it’s strange without being absurd, it’s human without being cloying and it is genuinely moving despite its plotty, thrillery, conceit and literary style.
I found it fun too (as someone who periodically makes low-effort attempts to remember high school French) to enjoy the French-equivalent-of-Spanglish that Winters’ book is full of: the Francophone characters speak a believable and an easily understandable hybrid of the two languages as they find their feet in the Anglophone community.
I Am A Truck is a cracking work of fiction about personal growth, about the need for community and communication, but also about adventure and crime and regret. It’s a gorgeous, excellently-constructed story and I will definitely go explore the catalogue of Invisible Publishing to go and see what else they’ve got that sounds on a par with this.
Excellent stuff, recommended.