A Chevy truck, a Thermos of coffee, date squares and bologna sandwiches: I Am a Truck begins with the basics.
A fishing trip which, both Agathe and Réjean know, is not a fishing trip. Both are aware that he is lying, but it’s a charade which Agathe is content to act out.
She believes the trip is actually connected to their twentieth anniversary the following week and, while she waits for him to return, she works on the pencil drawing of his truck, which he adores, purchasing a new one every year to demonstrate his devotion.
And it’s Réjean’s devotion which comes into question because his vehicle is found on the side of the road a few hours later, one door ajar, the sandwiches and squares unfinished.
Agathe remains convinced that he was planning to return to her, but readers can’t be sure whether she simply wants to believe this.
The police prod gently, and reassure her (but it’s not reassuring, is it) that there was no sign of foul play.
The world Réjean and Agathe inhabited was confined, partly by their couple-ness and partly by their having moved from an Acadian and French-speaking community to an English-speaking town. They are content in their separateness because of their togetherness.
However, once Réjean is gone, Agathe has no choice but to widen her world.
Michelle Winters’ prose style suits the story perfectly. Lean and directed, I Am a Truck reads like a novella, urging completion in a single sitting and revolving around a single incident which sparks into action almost immediately.
That is unexpected because the bulk of this action is interior, as identites shift and understandings expand. And, yet, the pacing and scope are handled deftly, so that readers slip easily from one scene to the next.
The novel is divided into segments titled “Now” and “Then”, beginning with a “Now” and ending with the longest, titled “Now On”. These are short and scenic, designed to invite a “just one more” response in readers.
First, readers are rooted firmly in “Then”s, even in some of the “Now” narratives, while Réjean’s absence is at the heart of the matter. Agathe’s grief is shown through remembrance and some sensory detail secures readers’ sympathies.
“So much of Réjean was left behind in his work shirts—his warmth, his breath, his flesh and bones and blood, the very himness of him. Washing his shirts used to feel like washing a little bit of him away, and left her with a mild sadness that required she smoke a cigarette.”
But, as the narrative unfolds, and as readers have come to feel they know these two characters – one who remains present and the other who is revealed through the reflections of other characters – and have gotten comfortable, the focus moves to the present.
This shift is accentuated by the gradual enlargening of the cast. As Agathe moves into the world, first with the need to find a job, the narrative itself widens to include three other significant settings and their related personnel.
“He had to concentrate to figure out how the parts of the Colonel’s face worked together: the oily brown curls, the thick bottom lip, the bulbous nose. Without question, his face was unusual, but it was only as Martin’s eyes travelled outward that he got the full impact of the ears. From behind each of the Colonel’s cowlicky sideburns protruded an ear the size of an English muffin. He couldn’t look away.”
Unexpected food images are not uncommon. In fact, Réjean and Agathe’s meet-cute was in the produce section at the marché. (And, if you don’t like a French word appearing suddenly in a predominantly English piece of writing, you might find the patois in this novel problematic, although it does appear in a limited and scupted fashion.) Réjean was only fifteen years old, already nearly seven feet tall, with a chest like a rain barrel and hands like bunches of bananas; Agathe “had just the year before peeled her way out of a rind of unremarkability, emerging that summer a very pretty girl”.
Readers witness the meeting in two paragraphs. Such is the nature of Michelle Winters’ storytelling: driven and purposeful. Even seemingly banal dialogue can contain a glimpse of the story’s core, as when Debbie explains Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” to Agathe, who has spent the past twenty years listening to Acadian folk songs on the radio rather than rock-and-roll.
“’He’s so frustrated,’ said Debbie. ‘He wants something new and he doesn’t know what, he just knows it’s out there somewhere and he needs to get Wendy and get out of that town before it crushes them both. Listen to him. No one understands desperation like Bruce. And no one understands hope like Bruce. And he’s got my favourite ass.'”
Tightly constructed but character-driven, Michelle Winters’ I Am a Truck is a remarkably satisfying read. For a jury who clearly appreciates the art of driving off-road, this fresh voice deserved a nod of recognition and it could even snag a spot in the parking lot of the shortlist.
If you are interested in reading about the other books on this year’s Giller longlist, check out my Autumn 2017 Awards and Events page. You can also find more Giller chat via the Shadow Giller Jury on KevinfromCanada’s enduring webpage.
I Am a Truck‘s superpower is its unpredictability.
At several junctures, small and large, the narrative seems to be steering in one direction and then swerves. Not in that aggravating way which makes readers feel like they’ve lost traction on the pavement, but in a tightly cornered maneuvre. This isn’t a quality frequently rewarded by Giller juries but Russell Wangersky’s collection made it to a shortlist in 2012 as did Anakana Schofield’s Martin John n 2015. This year’s jury appreciates the value of tightly constructed works but could choose to highlight a longer work which combines a streamlined narrative with more expansive characterization and thematic layering.